Eric Harris died in the hospital on April 2, 2015, after a volunteer deputy with the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Department accidentally discharged his gun instead of his taser while subduing Harris during an arrest after a sting operation. The video linked above was made available to the public by request of Harris’ family. It shows a disturbing scene, not just because a man who is already on the ground and surrounded by law enforcement is fatally shot, but because he continues to be held to the ground and ridiculed after the shooting occurs – when he tells officers he can’t breathe, one responds “Fuck your breath.”
Harris is another victim in a shocking number of police killings so far this year. I couldn’t find an exact number for 2015 (it changes every day, of course) but in January and February alone 176 people were killed by police officers (you can see a continuously updated list of all 2015 victims here). Now, it’s possible that some of those really were dire, my-life-or-yours situations where the officer had to use lethal force for the good of the nation. But if lethal force is so important, why is the U.S. dramatically out of line with the rest of the industrialized world in needing it? And why is it that police officers are so much better at avoiding lethal force with white people than with black people?
All of this is relevant to mass incarceration not just because it’s another element of the criminal justice system but because it displays the same disregard for Black lives that our approach to imprisonment does. Whether you’re incarcerating 1 in 3 Black men or shooting Black teenagers at 21 times the rate you’re shooting white teenagers, you’re acting on the same underlying prejudice: that young, poor people of color are a part of the dangerous class, are worth less than their white counterparts, and therefore taking care or avoiding risk is not as important. Wrongful conviction? They’re probably guilty of something. Taser or gun? Shoot first, figure that out later. Sentence a kid to life without parole? It’s not like they’re going to amount to much anyway.
This conception of the “dangerous class,” the new face of racism, is not unique to police, and it would be grossly underestimating its power to chalk it up to racist cops and limit our thinking to that arena. But police officers are very much a part of it, and the media attention that these senseless deaths have been drawing is as important as it is unusual.
So what do we do? We need to recognize the way that racism has been reframed as criminal justice, and effect radical change throughout our system in response. But in the interim, the American approach to policing should be overhauled in the image of many European countries. In Germany, for example, police officers receive extensive training discouraging the use of force (8 people were killed by German police officers in 2014, compared to 458 in the U.S.). In Iceland, few police officers carry guns and they are strongly encouraged against it – only one person has been fatally shot by a police officer since the country’s independence in 1944. In Eric Harris’ case, arming a volunteer deputy (who has been described as “pay to play” since he’s donated thousands of dollars worth of gifts to the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Department) is a completely unnecessary and dangerous thing to do, and absolutely a policy that should be changed immediately.
Some police departments are considering a different solution: the less lethal “triple defender” gun that can stun, shoot pepper spray, and disorient you with a strobe light, all in one handy implement (does this sound like something out of Brave New World to anyone else?). While I’m all for more people living to tell the tale, it sounds to me like it would enable unnecessary use of force more than it would curtail it. Let’s focus on reforms that reduce harm altogether rather than merely improving our survival rate.