On 20th Anniversary of Rodney King Beating, Reexamining Police Brutality

“Who can we count on when our society is threatened? If we can’t depend on them [the police], who can we depend on?” - Jim Letten, United States Attorney, Eastern District of Louisiana

This April will mark the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots sparked by the acquittal of the police officers involved in the Rodney King beating. The issue of police brutality, especially among people (and even more, men) of color, is still very real today. Police forces around the country do an excellent job of protecting and serving communities; however, there are still tragedies that occur due to institutional structures and personal choices made by police departments and individual police officers themselves.

Let’s be honest: Not all facets of society view police the same way. Some communities have positive relationships with the police, while others have much more volatile ones. I believe a national conversation is in order.

A close friend of mine recently made me aware of a situation that took place a little over a year ago in which her cousin, Reginald Doucet, Jr., was fatally shot by the police outside of his home in a suburb of Los Angeles, California. In the police report that has been challenged for its validity, the young man’s behavior was described as erratic. He was nude and unarmed, punched both of the police officers in the face, and reached for the gun of one of the officers. They then shot and killed him.

Now, I will be the first person to say that this is not the best situation in which a person should put him or herself. This situation was, to say the least, difficult to navigate. However, the question here is simple: Did the scenario necessitate fatal bloodshed? No matter what his behavior was, it is (and was) certain that Mr. Doucet was unarmed. The police officers were also equipped with tasers, which they could have used to restrain without taking his life.

In light of an internal investigation that said the police officers acted justly, the family is still filing a lawsuit against the officers. While people can argue about the type of compromised position Doucet put himself in or that the officers were just doing their jobs, I want to focus on whether the officers actually needed to shoot this young man. I believe that their actions were unjust and excessive. I want to briefly consider three questions:

Are police to be looked at as public servants? Anybody, I believe, whom the government employs (at any level) is a public servant. By and large, police officers serve communities every day. They put themselves in harms way in order to protect people’s lives and property. As public servants, we, the public, rely on police officers to look out for our best interests and ensure that the safety of the citizenry is always put first.

What does it mean to serve? Our public servants wield a certain amount of power in order to do their jobs. It is necessary for the police to possess weapons and have authority to maintain order in our communities. However, there is a difference between using power to serve and using that power to control. Some of the most heinous police crimes have come when police officers acted out of a sense of control and unbounded authority as opposed to attempting to service the community. This abuse of power was seen in the actions of police officers in post Hurricane Katrina that led to unnecessary deaths. It was also seen in the actions of campus police who used pepper-spray on peaceful protestors at UC Davis. I understand that the police have a job to do, but how you accomplish an objective matters just as much as the objective itself.

What types of standards should police officers be held to in dangerous situations? This is a very crucial question. On the one hand, police officers are people, too. They are susceptible to the same biases, prejudices, and emotions that we all face. Furthermore, put somebody in a position in which they know that human life is a stake, and he or she will probably be even more anxious. However, our servants are supposed to do everything in their power to rise above these tendencies. If they can’t, then why do they deserve the extra power in the first place? In dangerous situations, police should still be trying to protect the lives of everybody involved to the fullest extent possible. Excessive force should not be used to restrain people. People in the surrounding area should be made to feel safe by the police and not at even further risk of harm. And, if nothing else, this standard certainly means that unarmed people should not be shot and killed. The actions of police officers should be judged by the standard of service.

Weigh in: Do you think these standards are fair? What other standards would you add (or take away)?

Trust between communities and police departments has been proven to be very beneficial in providing order. Are there any other solutions you would add? I’m looking forward to continuing this conversation.

Photo Credit: Life SuperCharger