On April 20, 2021, Board Members of the National Prevention Science Coalition to Improve Lives exhaled when the verdict in the Chauvin case was announced. Our nation has struggled for generations with a law enforcement system that is fraught with biases against people of color that have resulted in psychological trauma, physical harm and death. Yesterday, we had reason to believe that the tides may be starting to turn.
An inflection point, perhaps, but as President Biden said, there is still much to be done. A quote from the New York Times drills down on this point:
"One in 2,000-- The murder conviction of a police officer is an exceedingly rare event. There have been only seven murder convictions of officers for fatal police shootings since 2005, according to Philip Stinson of Bowling Green State University. That suggests the chances of a killing by the police leading to a murder conviction are about one in 2,000."
The key question following the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd is whether accountability is on the horizon for police misconduct where the evidence is not as perfect, and where the abuse of power did not result in a homicide. There are about 1,000 police homicides every year in the United States, but only a conviction for murder in 1 out of 2000, or 1 every other year. The names of victims of police homicide are easily recalled--Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor and many more.
The situation for typical police-citizen encounters reflects a similar lack of accountability and transparency. The Police-Public Contact survey, administered by the US Department of Justice, estimates that there are about one million uses of force each year. There are no bystander videos and no public outcry for all but a tiny fraction of these cases. We have, collectively, no idea how many of these cases could be defused and deescalated. What we do know is that every police use of force has the chance to become a police-homicide, in the same way that every assault has the chance to become a murder, even if that was no one's intention at the outset.
The answer is to prevent the encounter in the first place. To deescalate the policing policies. To have alternatives to hands on force, or guns being drawn. Many alternatives exist today and are being implemented around the country. In Eugene, the CAHOOTS program deploys mental health workers and counselors in lieu of a law enforcement response. Other cities partner social workers with police officers on specific calls for service. In many cities, police officers receive crisis intervention training (CIT) that appears to improve outcomes for those involved in an altercation and for the communities by reducing violence associated with a police response.
But these prevention policies and programs are the exception. There are 18,000 police departments agencies in the United States, each setting its' own policy and acceptable use of force practices. An upstream, preventative approach to reduce the incidence of police involved shootings works at multiple levels, from a focus on individual officers’ attitudes and biases, to a department that clearly values and respects the dignity of all people and the sanctity of life, to system and policy change that enforces accountability and increasing investments in fostering racial and economic equity. And let us not forget that public safety is the primary objective of both law enforcement AND the community. Preventative tactics can bring this theme to the fore and essentially remind us of our common humanity.