The original post can be found here at TomDispatch.com.
Murderous Police in the City of Love
Posted by Rebecca Gordon
In one of the widely circulated cellphone videos of the killing of Mario Woods by San Francisco police in December, you can hear the young girl filming his death screaming. “Are you fucking serious?” she shrieks over and over at the crowd of cops encircling the young black man. According to police, Woods had refused to drop a kitchen knife they claim he was carrying. He was nonetheless attempting to walk away from the officers. “You had to shoot him that many fucking times?” the girl cries.
The Supreme Court has ruled that police officers are justified in using deadly force under two circumstances: either to protect their own lives (or the life of an innocent person) or to prevent a suspect from escaping as long as the cop believes that suspect is about to kill or seriously injure another person.
Did the officers really believe that Woods — who appears in the video to be much smaller than the five officers who fired on him, and who is clearly trying to get away — would have suddenly lunged at them all and killed one or more of them? Did they truly believe that Woods, who had already been pepper-sprayed and pummeled by bean-bag rounds, was about to immediately slay an innocent bystander?
Both scenarios sound absurd, but the law puts great faith in the credibility of a police officer’s fear. Under the legal standard governing police use of lethal force, the existence of an actual threat hardly matters, as long as the officer has an “objectively reasonable” belief that there is such a threat. In that belief, there’s plenty of room for unconscious racial bias. It may be hard to accept that those five officers couldn’t have found another way to neutralize Woods short of death, but as Vox‘s Dara Lind noted in December, “There are plenty of cases in which an officer might be legally justified in using deadly force because he feels threatened, even though there’s no actual threat there.”
Add one more factor to this mix: police officers are trained to shoot to kill, not injure. They are taught to fire at the chest because it improves their chances of hitting their target. Combine the unimpeachability of an officer’s judgment under the law with the racist impulses virtually none of us can escape and a kill-not-capture modus operandi, and you end up with the startling figure of 1,134 killings by law enforcement officers across the U.S. last year, a figure you would expect to come out of an actual war zone. Of those who died at the hands of the police in 2015, young black men were nine times more likely to be victims than other Americans.
No city is immune from the American epidemic of police killings that has only recently begun to gain wide attention — not even a liberal bastion like San Francisco. In her latest post, TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon, whose new book, American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes, will be published in April, takes a look at officer-involved killings in the “City of Love.”