[The San Francisco Chronicle performs its duty as bourgeois media, blaming the internet for the outrage over police killings. The epidemic of such killings of, especially, Black and Brown youth, as detailed in the recent Malcolm X Grassroots Movement report detailing that such killings take place every 26 hours, is not described by the Chronicle as alarming or disturbing. Instead, they decry the attention given by the internet. — Frontlines ed.]
Demian Bulwa, San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, October 14, 2012
From San Jose to Oakland to Vallejo, fatal police shootings often follow a familiar script.
An officer makes a split-second decision to kill, later explaining that he had no choice. His department struggles to communicate with the dead person’s family and the public. Anger spills into the streets, with activists demanding that authorities condemn the shooting – not just as a mistake but as murder. And an investigation clears the officer of any wrongdoing.
This could describe the shooting of 18-year-old Alan Blueford in Oakland in May or many other recent Bay Area cases.
While there is little evidence that police shootings are on the rise, they have become more politically divisive and combustible, people on all sides say, in part because of the spread of video cameras and the immediacy of online communication.
Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan acknowledged the challenge this month when he took the extraordinary step of posting official reports into the Blueford case online. He said the shootings affected his department’s bond with the community “more so than any other incident … and deservedly so.”
Alameda County prosecutors weighed in last week with their independent probe, saying Officer Miguel Masso shot Blueford in self-defense after the teenager pointed a pistol at him during a foot chase. Blueford’s family says the gun was not in his hand when Masso fired.
The case drew attention to a seemingly intractable divide between police, who want the public to appreciate the difficulty of life-or-death encounters, and their critics, particularly African American leaders and residents, who believe many shootings result primarily from an irrational fear of young black men.
The polarizing nature of police shootings could be seen last week in the crime-plagued neighborhood where Blueford was shot.
James Carter, 28, who provides in-home care to the elderly, said people were angry because officers rarely face criminal charges for their actions. The explosive reaction to law enforcement shootings, he said, reflected a deep mistrust of police in minority communities.
Tugging at his jeans, Carter said, “If you go like this, they think you have a gun.” Asked if he saw any police shootings as justified, he said, “Yeah, not all police officers are bad.” Then he added, “But a majority of them are.”
Sitting on his porch on the same block, 77-year-old James Bryant said Oakland police officers were often vilified for doing their job. He said the energy directed toward police shootings should go to stopping other homicides in Oakland, which has recorded nearly 100 slayings this year.
“I don’t think that’s right, all that protesting. They don’t even know what went down,” said Bryant, a retired carpenter. “If it wasn’t for the police, this would be a war zone. Most of the people who don’t trust the police aren’t doing right themselves.”
Many activists believe the street protests that followed – including one in Oakland that mushroomed into a riot – made a difference, pressuring prosecutors to file a murder charge against Mehserle. Ultimately, a jury convicted him of involuntary manslaughter.
Rallies planned online
When another BART officer fatally shot a knife-wielding homeless man in July 2011 in downtown San Francisco, activists responded with a series of rallies – planned online – that were dubbed “OpBART” and disrupted train service.
Police shootings are now dominating political debate in Vallejo, where a police force thinned by cuts has shot and killed five people since May. Last month, protesters packed a City Council meeting, prompting officials to shut down the meeting early.
Vallejo’s interim police chief, Joseph Kreins, traced the shootings to “individuals who seemingly are more willing to confront our officers with guns.”
But critics say Vallejo’s police force has been too aggressive, especially since one of its officers was killed in November while chasing a suspected bank robber.
Stoking the outrage is a widespread belief that some police agencies do a better job than others of avoiding fatal encounters.
In Richmond, which is nearly as big as Vallejo and has more violent crime and more officers, police have shot and killed one person in the past five years, while wounding three others, records show. During the same period, five people were killed in Richmond by outside law enforcement agencies.
Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus said many factors explain the numbers. His officers do monthly training exercises that are rigorous and realistic on the use of their weapons, he said, and they have a lot of street experience disarming suspects.
“I think our officers are very disciplined in the way they are using force,” Magnus said. “Just because someone is reaching toward their waistband doesn’t mean they’re going to be shot. We know they’re often trying to get rid of the gun.”
Jordan, the Oakland chief, said in an interview last week that he had recently added a yearly, 10-hour firearms training day for officers that includes live simulations.
Another flash point is the racial disparity in police shootings. Two years ago, Oakland released a statistical report on 45 officer-involved shootings in the city from 2004 to 2008, one-third of which were fatal. Of the people shot, 37 were black and none was white.
“We all know it,” said George Holland, who heads the Oakland branch of the NAACP. “Police officers unfortunately have some fear of young black males. And if you’re afraid of somebody, you’re probably going to react in many instances.”
But a perception that fatal police shootings are dramatically rising appears to be wrong. According to the FBI, the number of alleged felons killed by police around the country in the past 10 years has been fairly constant, ranging from 341 (in 2002 and 2005) to 414 (in 2009).
In Oakland, officer-involved shootings are down this year after officers killed 20 people in the previous four years. Officers have killed one person, wounded a second, and fired and missed in five other instances. In six of the seven cases, police said the suspect had a gun.
A court-appointed monitor overseeing reforms in the city’s police force has raised questions about recent shootings. In a report issued earlier this month, he concluded that officers sometimes fire their guns without justification, and are “on a perpetual state of high alert, assuming that all citizen contacts have the potential to go badly.”
Adjust public’s expectations
Some experts on police tactics say the public needs to adjust its expectations of police officers – that they can shoot a weapon out of a person’s hand like in the movies, for example, or that they shouldn’t fire until fired upon.
“You have to make split-second decisions with limited information,” said Shannon Bohrer, a former Maryland state trooper who teaches at the FBI academy in Virginia. “It’s do or die, and you have to make it in an instant. No one else in our society has to make that decision unless you go to war.”
Police agencies are also focusing more on managing the aftermath of a shooting. Bohrer was the author of an FBI bulletin to police agencies in 2010 that reads, “Just because the officer had the right to shoot … may not guarantee a positive, or even a neutral, reception from the public.”
In San Francisco, police now hold a neighborhood meeting after every fatal shooting – with Chief Greg Suhr out front – and they are among a number of departments that are quicker to release details of shootings, including video and audio recordings.
Jordan acknowledged a damaging slip-up on the day Blueford was shot. He said an investigator, relying on a mistaken account from a witness, told the teenager’s family that he had been killed in a gunfight with the officer.
In the future, Jordan said, a commanding officer and chaplain will act as liaisons to families. In addition, he said, the department is working with the NAACP to develop a campaign to educate the public about officer-involved shootings.
John Burris, an attorney who has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Blueford’s family and others, said efforts by police to reach out have a long way to go.
Police departments, he said, need to stop describing shootings as justified before the facts are in. And, he said, they should not “smear” the dead by highlighting their past criminal records.
“That really has the impact of outraging the family and the community,” Burris said.
Holland, the NAACP leader, said the effort to cut down on police shootings also included counseling young men to do everything they can to de-escalate encounters with officers.
“Don’t flunk the attitude test. You have to survive the incident so you can challenge it in the proper forum,” Holland said. “Some people say that’s a cop-out. They say, ‘I have my rights.’ But you can be dead right too.”