Lethal Justice: Death At The Hands Of The Police


Last Thursday at 7pm local time, a peaceful protest march through the city of Dallas began. The march was in response to the deaths of Philando Castile, 32, and Alton Sterling, 37, who were killed earlier in the week by police in two separate incidences.

As the march was nearing its end, gunfire broke out and panic immediately ensued as the protesters scrambled for cover. The police on duty were targeted in the incident and fired on by a gunman, who is thought to have had an elevated position in a parking garage. Tragically, five police officers were killed, another seven injured and two civilians hurt. In a statement by the police, the ambush was described as being carefully planned and executed.

The gunman has been identified as Micah Johnson, 25, who was a member of the US Army Reserves for six years, and had served in Afghanistan on a nine-month tour of duty. Johnson is believed to have acted alone in the attacks and the BBC reported that bomb-making materials and rifles were found in his home. Johnson was killed shortly after the attacks by a remotely detonated explosive that was sent into the car park where he had taken refuge. Johnson was not found to be associated with any terrorist organizations, but his attack was said to have been motivated by an outrage at the use of lethal force on and the recent deaths of African-Americans at the hands of the police.

However, this outrage is by no means a justification for the murder of the five innocent officers on duty. The issue of race has recently been at the forefront of debate both within the United States and on an international level. In a statement in response to the Dallas attack, President Barack Obama said that all Americans “should be deeply troubled” by the shootings. Both the recent attack on the police officers in Dallas and the abhorrently long list of African-American people who have died at the hands of the police has raised international concern on the use of lethal force and the deep flaws within the criminal justice system in America.

Two days before the attack in Dallas, Alton Sterling was shot dead in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The fatal incident between Sterling and the police reportedly began when the police received a report that someone was being threatened with a gun outside of a shop. Multiple bystanders recorded Sterling’s death, and the shocking footage shows him being pinned down by two police officers before being fatally shot.

The day after, Philando Castile was shot dead, in Minnesota, as he reached for his driving license. The BBC reported that Castile had told the officer that he was licensed to carry a concealed gun and had one in his possession. Castile’s girlfriend recorded the shooting, which shows the car being stopped due to its broken rear light and Castile obeying every order given to him. Her daughter was also in the car at the time.

The protest in Dallas was led by the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which works to speak out against both the extrajudicial killings of black people, and the overarching issue of institutionalized racism in the United States. The movement is dynamic, fluid and powerful in that it has united people on an international level to challenge the current systematic oppression of black people. The movement began in 2012 with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media after George Zimmerman was acquitted of his shooting of African-American teen Trayvon Martin.

The public’s perception of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, has, to some extent, been reduced to one that is both factional and exclusive by rival hashtags such as #BlueLivesMatter, in support of the police who have been killed, and #AllLivesMatter. In a statement on Friday, President Obama succinctly summarized the ethos of the movement stating that:

“When people say black lives matter, it doesn’t mean blue lives don’t matter, it just means all lives matter, but right now the big concern is the fact that the data shows black folks are more vulnerable to these kinds of incidents…This isn’t a matter of us comparing the value of lives”.

The BBC reported that in 2015, police in the United States killed over 1000 people. Nearly a third of these people were black, despite the fact that black people account for only about 13% of the population. These outrageously high numbers seem out of place when one considers that officers in the United States may only justify firing their weapon at civilians if they fear the loss of life or limb, and that lethal force may only be used as a last resort. Shockingly, the BBC further reported that 97% of these deaths were not followed by any charges to the police officers involved.

This lack of accountability is hugely problematic in that it illustrates how racism in the United States has become institutionalized. This institutionalization may be defined as the ways in which the implicit biases of the predominantly white police officers develop, as there is no perceived consequence to their use of lethal force.

The formation of these implicit biases may also be attributed to the ways in which the police are trained in the United States. The BBC reported that in the United States, police training typically involves an average of 60 hours on the use of deadly force and firearms, and only 8 hours of de-escalation conflict resolution training. As such, police officers in America are taught to react in a way that is violent from the beginning of their training. This warrior mentality is extremely dangerous as in a high-pressure situation the officer will typically resort to the use of force, which may have a fatal result.

Alternatives to deadly force, such as verbal commands, the use of empty hands to control a suspect, and the use of less lethal weapons such as batons or pepper spray should be encouraged. However, even these alternatives may not necessarily stop the killing of an innocent person at the hands of the police. An example of which is the tragic death of Eric Garner in 2014, who was suffocated in a choke-hold by a police officer, which is a move prohibited by the New York police department.

Since his appointment in 2009, the Dallas police chief David Brown, was determined to improve the relations between the Dallas police department and the community. The BBC reported that the department had made a marked effort to focus on de-escalation and not force and to emphasize community policing and increase transparency. Despite clashing with local politicians, the excessive force complaints against Dallas officers had fallen by 64% in 2014.

The tragic attack on the police officers in Dallas may be condoned as a hate crime that was fueled, but by no means justified, by an immense amount of anger at the current state of the criminal justice system in the United States.

Claudia Thomson