Growing up the daughter of a Fairfax County police officer, one who went on to become the chief of police nonetheless, I have a distinct memory of being educated on the whereabouts of my father’s gun: where it was located, what the lockbox looked like, how it is loaded and how to ensure the safety is on if I ever had to touch it. The remnants of this brief educational lesson are now fragmented as time progresses, but there is one aspect of this lesson that forever lives on in the depths of my mind - often left on repeat every time I read a heartbreaking news headline. My father, more stern than usual, with his brow furrowed and voice cold, stated: “If you pick up this gun, or any gun, you are shooting to kill. That is what this weapon is for.”
Given our current rise in fatal shootings over the past few months of 2021, including those that were caused at the hands of police officers, it should be no surprise that this year is set to break records as our nation’s deadliest year yet. Gun violence has only recently been pushed to the top of the fold. It should have been declared a public health crisis long before 2020 made us look in the mirror. If we had, maybe a few more loved ones would still be here.
For so long now, I continue to ask myself, why even shoot? When you shoot, you shoot to kill. No one should have to receive the call that their son, brother, father, or uncle was shot by the police, and no officer should have to grapple with such a heinous act for the rest of their life. Black, Brown, and other people of color have been disproportionately affected by gun violence at the hands of the police since the concept of “police” in America was established. Why haven’t we, a collective community and nation, moved the needle on this issue faster?
We can only make better what is broken when we take the time to listen intently to understand each other as human beings. So why do we lack an understanding for one another when it comes to something as simple as a traffic stop – which is dangerous for both the officer and the constituent I must add; for even without a gun during an event as simple as this the power dynamic is always shifted in favor of the police officer. Like a physician’s “white coat effect,” there is a police officer’s “badge effect” that persists among a fraternal group that a community calls upon for help.
The origins of what is now “modern policing” did not come from a place of integrity, altruism, or desire to preserve human rights. Most police forces in America started as a form of slave control. Even modern-day policing uniforms can tie some of their regalia back to the fashions of our nation during the pre-and Civil War era. Furthermore, police often served a reactive role in society prior to the 1950s – they responded to crime after it happened. Its evolution into that of a proactive control mechanism was a slow progression that became normalized in everyday life: to “observe” and “protect.” Only just a few years ago did departments begin to implement a community model of policing, one that facilitates cooperation and discourse with the public. Still, numerous departments across the country face difficulties implementing this model in its purest utopian form.
So, where in our current disarray do we find the answers to our nation’s policing crisis if, in all its entirety, policing has overwhelmingly failed to get it right for 200 plus years? When did a lack of empathy, humility, and a reckless disregard for human life become a class one must pass at the academy? When did police officers grab their guns by mistake? When did it become okay to commit awful, but lawful acts of violence against members of the community you are trying to protect?
The most pressing argument is the action of codifying police training into law in the same fashion we have come to codify medical training in the United States. As one can see through a quick Google search, most police training programs across the United States do not meet the critical threshold of quality ethical and educational standards. In fact, most only require a high school diploma or GED. Nor is there a national registry of police officers who have entered the academy or who have been fired by various forces to prevent state-hopping when handed the most severe disciplinary action. Furthermore, there is minimal incident review by internal or external auditors, and even if there is, most hold no authority over issuing sanctions and subpoenas.
As a community and nation, we mustn’t forget to look at the most heinous parts of policing’s history as we cannot create change without a reckoning of our fatal flaws. Most importantly, we need people who will look upon policing issues with radical transparency and radical truth. Police as an act of social work, human beings helping other human beings with compassion, grace, and empathetic understanding to de-escalate violent situations. It is about redistributing funds to right-size and codify a government agency that should be working alongside other public safety officials and social workers to combat gun violence – and violence in general – against our community.