Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Death on a Streetcar

The mistrust and outright hatred of police officers in many online communities saddens and disturbs me.
I'll get my biases right out front: as longtime readers know, my dad was a career cop, now thankfully retired. My uncle had an O.P.P. Marine unit named after him. A cousin is a forensic detective who once walked a beat. My step-brother is a detective on a different force. I could go on. Hell, even my mom was an auxiliary police officer for a couple of years.
I know strangers will immediately question my objectivity, given this information. I can't even be trusted to tell the truth about these members of my family--the truth being that every one of them is a good person who is or has been of immense service to his or her community. 

But no, according to the online world, all cops are assholes, drunk with power. The 'good' ones are actually worse than the bad ones because they do nothing to stop the evil going on in their midst--the framing of innocents, the random brutality, the kickbacks...seriously, I think most of the online world's idea of what it means to be a police officer comes from seedy Hollywood dramas.

This is one of the milder replies I got to a spirited defence of police I posted:

You are part of their class whereas I am not. I don't think you understand the kind of privilege you have. My friend's father was a police officer and all he has to do to get out of any ticket is mention his dad. He likes police too. Another friend is an ambulance driver. He got pulled over for speeding. The police apologized and told him to bring his new car around to the station so they knew what it looked like and so they wouldn't pull him over again. Once again, he likes police. 

In medieval times some people were "unfree" and not allowed to have weapons. Free people were given a weapon in a ceremony that showed they were free. What you are failing to understand is that the warrior class is free whereas the rest of us are unfree. You cannot arm and allow a segment of society to have weapons without it creating a new class. Either we can all be armed or non of us should be armed. Police should have specially trained officers that can bring out a gun to a scene if it seems absolutely warranted. The idea that they should all have side arms and life and death power over everybody is bloody obscene and I abhor it. It isn't justice, fair or even civilized. It is a great injustice that just last week cost three people their lives in Alberta alone. Seriously, you have privilege so you don't see it, but I have to worry these people might kill me because it's too hot out or whatever. I feel like a serf pleading to a samurai but more accurately to a lord who can have my throat slit and make up an excuse later.

That rocked me on my heels, much more so than the usual "cops are scum" posted by people who wouldn't last a week in a society without police. I think the thing that bothered me most was that I found myself agreeing with parts of this.

First off, I wouldn't ever dream of name-dropping my dad or anyone else in my family should I ever be accosted by a police officer. I doubt it would do me any good, for one thing: in fact, I believe it would rub the majority of officers the wrong way and probably go badly for me. But more importantly, this son of a cop has an exquisitely developed sense of consequence. If I am guilty, I deserve punishment.  If I am innocent, it is my duty as a citizen (not to mention in my best interest) to help police officers ascertain this innocence as quickly as possible and move on to finding the guilty party.

That may sound hopelessly naïve of me, especially pitted against what seems to be the majority opinion that all cops are out to get you. But consider: if you go into a situation with anyone, not just a cop, believing the other guy is a grade-A prick who means you harm, well, that's probably what you're going to get. They say 'seeing is believing' but the truth is that believing is seeing. We view the world with certain prejudices, positive or negative, and they have a tendency to reinforce themselves.

As to the weapons argument. You will search long and hard before you find someone as anti-gun as I am. I try to be objective about guns but all I see when I look at one is a machine designed to dispense death. I'm willing to accept, provisionally, that there are people out there who like guns and don't fantasize about killing people, but I'll go many miles out of my way before I piss one of those people off, just in case.
Should the police have guns?
Given the amount of cop-hatred out there--not to mention the number of guns floating around--it's awfully hard to suggest they shouldn't. But then again, that catches me in a logical quandary: there's a lot of hatred out there period. Maybe everybody should be armed.

But that way lies madness:

Okay, I still have some stuff to sort out.

I will say this: the idea that there should only be some police officers who can bring a gun to a scene is AT LEAST as naïve as my thinking that all police officers have my welfare at heart or that all gun lovers are potential murderers. Because "a scene" can develop out of nowhere, in the middle of nowhere, at any time.

But damnit, THIS wasn't a scene until the police made it one:

It had been one, according to people who were in it. It had been a dangerous scene: Kid with a knife in one hand and his penis in the other, advancing on the crowd, first demanding "nobody get off the fucking streetcar" and then saying "everybody get off the fucking streetcar". Which, as you can imagine, everyone did, including the driver.

At that point, it's just a kid and a knife on that streetcar. The kid was Sammy Yatim, 18, a Syrian immigrant to Canada who was very unhappy with his life in Toronto but who was also the last person any of his friends suspected would pull a stunt like this. The knife was part of his collection, something that had fascinated him for years: big knives, small knives, rusty knives. He did not thrust the knife at anyone or even precisely point it anywhere. But that detail kind of gets lost in the screaming chaos, and it becomes moot once everyone's safe outside.

After repeated demands to drop the knife, the shots. Nine of them. This strikes many people as excessive. The truth is that once the decision to shoot has been made, there will be many shots fired. At least three, because that's what officers are trained to do--their weapons are chosen for reliability, not for accuracy. Even at point-blank range, accuracy is far from guaranteed.

My problem isn't that nine shots were fired. My problem is that any shots were fired.

If a knife-wielding assailant is closer than 21 feet to a potential victim, he can inflict a fatal injury before being incapacitated by gunfire. This, too, is drilled into police officers' heads: a knife can be more dangerous than a gun.

But Yatim was alone on that streetcar. There was no one within 21 feet of him. If the police had been there when the situation had begun, the shots would have been more understandable, provided of course that all civilians were out of the line of fire. But that wasn't the case. Why was there no effort made to de-escalate? Sammy and his knife were only a danger to himself by the time police arrived.

Why, if Yatim was such a threat, did only one officer shoot? In fact, only two officers even had their weapons drawn.

Why taser Yatim after he's undoubtedly dead?

You can suggest that none of this would have happened had Yatim acted rationally at any point, say, by not drawing a knife in the first place or at least by dropping in when told to. I won't argue the point other than to say I'm not sure this kid would be alive today even if he'd dropped his weapon promptly. It seems to me like the shooter, Const. Furcillo, was on something of a hair trigger.

This makes the third time in almost nine years of blogging that I have felt it necessary to ignore my natural pro-police bent. The Dziekanski death was the first, and this Yatim shooting has many similarities; the second concerned a peaceful protest at U.C. Davis where people were nonchalantly sprayed with tear gas. Now this inexplicable shooting.

And I recognize that these three incidents in nearly a decade of blogging represent a small fraction of incidents wherein police acted badly. But that fraction in turn represents a small fraction of the incidents involving police that go well: the number of lives saved, either literally or figuratively; by police and the number of good deeds done by cops worldwide every hour of every day.

We can suggest that screening be improved such that people looking to be warriors join the Forces rather than police forces. We can also suggest that training be improved so that cases like this are handled entirely differently. I also believe something needs to be done about the "thin blue line" of cops protecting and shielding those among them that have broken laws or behaved reprehensibly. I'm not sure what can be done, but something must be. Because peace officers are unjustly held in extremely low regard by a fairly large percentage of the population, and deaths like Yatim's do the police no favours in that regard.

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