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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

James McDevitt: Hindsight gives insight on race, policing

Most use-of-force incidents are viewed with the clarity of 20-20 hindsight by those not involved in the incident, or those with little knowledge of the use-of-force continuum. One of the nine principles of policing, announced in 1829 by Sir Robert Peel, a pioneer of modern policing is:

“To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public cooperation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law … and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary … for achieving a police objective.”

In a controlled setting, there is ample time to progress through the entire use-of-force continuum, from verbal persuasion to – if absolutely necessary – deadly force. However, many times officers might have just one or two seconds to react, relying upon both training and instinct in order to save their own lives or those of others.

The solution is to comply with the instructions of law enforcement, and in many recent incidents the victim would be alive had there been such compliance. Many in the public and the news media overlook this principle. We continue to hear “another killing of an unarmed man of color” when it is also accurate to say “the unfortunate shooting of an uncooperative male suspect.” The public’s misunderstanding of law enforcement’s use-of-force continuum (persuasion to deadly force, as required) is best illustrated in a December letter to the editor that stated “one shot has to be fired at any officer first to justify” return fire. This notion is naïve and outright ridiculous. We don’t pay our police to take the first bullet.

A lack of leadership at the highest levels of government skews perceptions as well. Why take a real leadership role and be constructive when you can throw all law enforcement under the bus, turn your back on your entire department and play politics instead of exercising real leadership.

When these individuals focus on a claim that children of color are at risk when dealing with law enforcement, they are forgetting the real problem. Homicide is the leading cause of death for the 40 percent of African-American males who die between the ages of 15 and 34, compared to 3.8 percent of white males and 14 percent of all males ages 15 to 34. African-American males 15 to 34 are 10 times more likely to die by homicide than their white counterparts. Why haven’t we heard the same level of anger on this subject from those in high places? Where are the protests against this continuing slaughter of young men of color?

Leadership – true leadership – is not playing politics and demonizing all law enforcement. Leadership is acknowledging the true facts, however inconvenient, dealing with those in law enforcement who step out of line and supporting the rest.

Statistics show that African-American males commit violent crimes at seven to 10 times the rates of white males. Their incarceration rates are primarily driven by violent offenses and not drug offenses. Law enforcement often works in areas where a disproportionately high percentage of street crime is committed by young men of color. As FBI Director James Comey recently stated, this fact gives rise to a “hard truth.” As a result of this high instance of crime on the part of young men of color in some areas, law enforcement there develops a “convenient shortcut.” This mental shortcut becomes almost irresistible. It is a somewhat rational form of profiling.

As Comey and various journalists point out, few are willing to speak out about another hard truth that underlies the extraordinarily high crime rates that plague young men of color: Over 70 percent of young African-American males grow up in single-parent households without adequate role models. Poverty is rampant and unemployment rates are twice that of young white males.

Recent protests focused on use-of-force incidents have produced mixed results. On the negative side, protests that result in violence and property destruction turn people away from the issue. On the positive side, the peaceful protests have rightfully raised public awareness as to the need for action. It would be best to channel the energy and passion exhibited in these protests into actions that would not only educate law enforcement and the community, but of equal importance, seek solutions to eliminate the conditions that underlie the high rates of violent crime among young men of color.

James McDevitt is the former U.S. attorney for Eastern Washington.