As a kid in Minneapolis in the 1950s, I play the Lone Ranger, blasting bad guys, rolling on the carpet, and coming up again as the victorious Masked Man. Good guys with guns didn’t shoot people in the back, but faced them at high noon. Kids learned you never hit a guy when he’s down, much less drop a knee on his neck while your gang piled on him.
In the ‘60s, while at the University of Minnesota, I spent a summer doing civil rights work in rural Louisiana, learning firsthand to beware of police. In 1964, three civil rights workers had been killed in Mississippi. And one year later I’d have to crouch down in the back seat when riding with a black co-worker, so as not to call attention to our “integrated car.”
All of us were well aware of police violence in the North, especially against the Black Panthers. In later years, everyone saw dramas like “The Wire” expose the kinds of caustic bad-cop deeds that “Gunsmoke’s” Marshall Dillon would have considered cowardly. For baby boom kids, those TV westerns may have been simplistic, but they taught there’s a code of honor essential to upholding truth, justice and the American way.
Policing is as tough as work gets. Last year I called 911 when I spotted a man trying to break into my neighbor’s house. I marveled as an SFPD officer, who happened to be Asian American, athletically scaled our back fence to the next yard, as his buddies came around the back. (The man I saw had high-tailed it away when he realized I’d seen him.)
But I also had to wonder why the SFPD needed at least five police cars and a crowd of cops, who hung around together for some time after getting the all-clear. On my initial call, I’d replied to the 911 operator’s question that the man I saw appeared unarmed, shirtless and in old jeans, as he climbed up the neighbor’s back deck. She left the line and came back, asking, “You said he was armed?” That alarmed me—“No! I didn’t say that at all.” It was good that she verified, but I had to wonder what message all of those officers heard. What did they want to hear?
How did the itchy trigger finger of fear, institutionalized cowardly behavior, become the U.S. standard of law and order?
I thought of what happened in San Francisco to Mario Wood in 2015, a disturbed African American in a bad moment. Yes, he held a knife. But everyone saw the video of him surrounded by five officers. He apparently moved toward one of them—and was gunned down. The city would pay a big settlement and change its procedures some, but as the San Francisco Chronicle headlined in 2019, the city’s final report said the officers has “acted within policy.”
Policy allowed for an instant firing squad against a mentally-ill man with a blade? Really?
Everyone understands the need for backup to protect initial responders. How has repeatedly killing people for no good reason been increasingly justified in precincts, police departments, internal review offices, courts, police unions and politicians?
How could shooting a youth on his knees five times from inside a Vallejo police car, because the hammer in his belt might have been a gun, be anything but an ambush—the very essence of cowardice? Yet a department spokesman refused to answer whether it might have been a use of “excessive force.”
No one wants to hear the bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” as another officer’s widow and mother weep. I’ve had friends and family in law enforcement, including one who survived being shot by a drug dealer. Most cops deserve every ounce of gratitude we can muster for their courage and dedication. Yet, how did the itchy trigger finger of fear, institutionalized cowardly behavior, become the U.S. standard of law and order?
In the wake of the Minneapolis shooting, though, media, notably the New York Times, have examined the systematic legal armature protecting the kinds of policing that erodes the trust people need before calling 911.
Communities need a reboot of trust that their fears won’t be betrayed by lethal “enforcement” later justified by a cop’s claim of “reasonable fear” that a person’s reach for his driver’s license might have been for an unseen gun. That vague standard of “reasonable fear” has become so distorted that it’s no wonder a cold-blooded cop like Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis was able to rack up multiple past complaints (18, including several shootings), without disciplinary action or loosing his job.
Isn’t confronting and diffusing threats when possible to minimize community fear—you know, bravery—essential to police work? How good can peace officers feel about their department when almost all of them gets off the hook by saying, “I shot first because I was afraid”? Muscling with lethal force and asking questions later—isn’t that cowardly by definition? How did that become a benchmark for safeguarding anyone, anywhere?
How about “reasonable and responsible” as a better standard for preserving and protecting the public, as well as shielding first responders.
My hope is that, in the wake of today’s turmoil, we’ll see more than cosmetic actions to restore public trust in law enforcement. That would mean good, well trained and safely backed-up community policing—by cops known and respected as on-the-ground community members.
Paul Kleyman is National Coordinator of the Journalists Network on Generations (JGN), which he co-founded in 1993. He edits its e-newsletter, Generations Beat Online (GBONews.org). He was Director of the Ethnic Elders Newsbeat at New America Media for 9 years until 2017, and previously edited Aging Today, newspaper of the American Society on Aging, for 20 years until 2008. For JGN, Kleyman co-created the Journalists in Aging Fellows program with the Gerontological Society of America, for which he currently consults and previously co-directed for 10 years. His 1974 book Senior Power: Growing Old Rebelliously was among the first general-press books on aging. In 2016, he was named an “Influencers in Aging” by PBS’s��Next Avenue website. His articles have appeared in a wide range of print and online publications, such as the Huffington Post, Salon,San Francisco Chronicle,Healthreporting.org, and AARP Bulletin. Kleyman has been widely interviewed or quoted by the New York Times, NPR Next Avenue, Columbia Journalism Review and the Association of Health Care Journalists.