No sooner than I prepared to write about our community’s response to one of the most recent examples of law enforcement’s abuse of excessive force against Black bodies did I receive more unfortunate news about another teenage male slain by police in Missouri. As if the first situation—where law enforcement breaks the window on the passenger’s side and tasers Jamal Jones in front of his family—wasn’t bad enough, the latest killing in South St. Louis, just miles away from #Ferguson has already resulted in conflicting accounts between law enforcement. Police claim that the suspect was shot and killed after firing at cops and that a gun was recovered from the scene while other accounts that say the young man was armed only with a sandwich.
At first glance, and admittedly with little information beyond what the press has reported thus far, each of these stories seems well out of bounds with respect to proper policing. In watching the video of the stop in Indiana, it appears that police pulled over the vehicle for a failure to wear a seatbelt. While that is certainly an offense that can warrant a stop and a ticket, it is a violation and not a crime for which an individual can be arrested, sans any other additional factors. The driver already suggests that the police had pulled a gun after the passenger reached in a bag to comply with their request and produce identification. However, the most disturbing thing about this was the amount of force used against someone who wasn’t even operating the vehicle. The video appears to show that the passenger obeyed the officer’s instructions but that he also articulated that he wanted to speak to a “white shirt” (commanding officer) for further explanation as to why he was being asked to get out of the car. It remains entirely unclear the reason for breaking the window and using a taser on a passenger who did not physically resist the officers or otherwise disobey their commands.
As for the killing in St. Louis, beyond me being generally distrustful of law enforcement’s account (i.e. the suspect firing at police), even when considering the facts in a light most favorable to police, I am still unmoved. Using lethal force against the police does allow police to use lethal force to subdue a suspect or eliminate a threat. However, preservation of life is always regarded as a top priority. We have seen countless instances of suspects regarded as armed and dangerous who were ultimately “taken alive” by police. Given the most recent history in the hotbed of police activity that is Missouri, this killing is unacceptable. The fact that no witness can back up the police's side of events makes that pretty clear.
But these are all angles that we’ve discussed and things we already know. Yet, these violations keep happening. So, what now? This is a problem that is going to require some systemic and seemingly radical levels of change to fix. To that end, here are three possible solutions to our community’s policing problem:
1) Strap Up—One of the most interesting facets about this debate has been the pro-gun lobby’s silence on the 2nd Amendment rights of citizens. It would be an interesting twist if members of our communities who are able to legally do so began to secure concealed carry licenses and armed themselves. I do not advocate violence against police, but if a group of anti-government militants can point assault rifles at Federal agents and have them back down, why shouldn’t law-abiding citizens consider arming themselves within the limits of the law?(Well, perhaps the death of John Crawford may serve as a deterrent…)
2) Body Cameras—As Jamal Jones and his family seeks redress in civil court, one of the strongest things they have working in their favor is the indisputable evidence of the video. There can be no question about what was said and which officer(s) took what action(s) in this situation. While it did not stop this tragedy from occurring, it is common sense that if police know their actions are being recorded they are more likely willing to handle things using the appropriate procedural steps.
3) Us Policing Us—We will never be able to reject the presence of police no matter where we live but with a stronger sense of community, it is possible and likely that many of our issues could be resolved without the intervention, and subsequent misuse of authority, from law enforcement. There are Jewish communities in New York that employ these tactics—much to the chagrin of other groups. However, it is permitted because the buy-in from the community makes it a viable alternative to traditional policing.
I recognize that there are unique and separate challenges presented by each of these alternatives. When dealing with the human element, no method will be entirely perfect. A significant part of what we are attempting to address is rooted in the notion that Black bodies are inherently dangerous. Still, as this problem continues to manifest itself in the unwarranted violation of those same Black bodies, we will have to seriously consider some unconventional methods of addressing this issue.
Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a former King’s County (Brooklyn), NY prosecutor and federal civil rights trial attorney. Follow him on Twitter @CFColemanJr.