Earlier this week, Jacob Blake was shot in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. There have been many responses to the shooting. This included a temporary boycott of NBA playoff games by players. Local protests and national attention has been focused on making Kenosha police responsible for their actions.
To further highlight the problem, a teenager seen openly carrying a firearm allegedly shot and killed two protesters. There is footage of the alleged shooter holding his hands up to police while they drive by without placing him in custody. This is after police were notified that a person had fired shots at protesters. The alleged shooter was able to leave the scene.
Why the difference.
Police have broad discretion in how they do their jobs, limited only by training guidelines and department policies. Historically, police are given some broad latitude in the decisions they make in dangerous moments. Due to police controlling the evidentiary narrative (that is, what information makes it into official records), this latitude has expanded over the past few decades.
This means that police are allowed to make different decisions in a given moment without much in the way of correction after the fact. The public is forced to take their police as they find them. One officer might respond to situations with a gun. Another officer might respond with inaction. As long as policy isn’t violated (as determined by the police and people they work closely with), both situations have correct outcomes.
The consequences of all of this.
At its core, the difference in decisions to shoot a guy who might have had a knife and to ignore a guy who had a gun ready to fire shows that police are capable of getting it wrong. If the same values were applied to both police actions, either Mr. Blake or the shooter should both be unharmed or both have gunshot wounds. Instead, the public is left with inconsistent actions. And because the actions involve threats to life and limb, this means the public can’t predict how police will respond.
Making no other assumptions about what happened in Kenosha (i.e., systemic racism, lack of police training, no body cameras, etc.), this is a problem. If the public can’t predict police behavior, it can’t trust police. The effects end up being terrible for police and the community it allegedly serves.
Unpredictability breeds mistrust. It should not be a surprise that communities and professional organizations are demanding a change to this state of affairs. Communities need to feel protected by police, not threatened by them.
Right now, some communities do not have control over their police forces.
Protests and demonstrations are happening because the institutions that are supposed to modify police behavior – courts and elected officials – are not working. This means that nobody is able to fix a problem with policing. Mistakes do not get diminished over time. Rather, they are multiplied.
Likewise, in areas where the community knows and affects police policy, there isn’t much in the way of community tension. Protests are about things that happen elsewhere. Law enforcement doesn’t feel compelled to resort to violence.
Given a choice, which place seems more preferable to live?