by Paul Mattessich
Philando Castile, driving with two passengers, including a four-year-old child, is shot during a police traffic stop. He dies. It’s senseless.
What can we do about this? How can we prevent it from happening again?
In 2013, when police in the United States committed 461 “justifiable homicides,” police officers in England and Wales killed exactly zero people. Do we in the United States have violent tendencies so much worse than residents of England, so that shooting us becomes necessary in order to maintain the peace?
In the Falcon Heights, Minnesota incident, the police officer seems like an upstanding community member, dedicated to helping others. He likely did not go to work expecting or intending to kill someone. Did sufficient information exist in that officer’s mind to justify a split-second decision to fire a gun at another human being? Whether or not the facts of this situation justified a killing by the police is not the most important question we need to answer. We could misguidedly expend a lot of energy addressing that question, but our efforts would not have long lasting value.
I can’t pretend to know everything we need to accomplish in order to move forward as a united community. However, as of now, I am fairly certain about three things we should do.
First, we should ask why our culture promotes the use of guns – by police and by civilians – for resolving conflicts. Why should the police ever shoot an unarmed person? If the Ferguson event happened in London, the police officer would most likely have waited for backup and then physically restrained the unarmed suspect. Here, we shoot people. Why? Can we change the accepted protocol?
Second, what really does happen in encounters between police and community residents? We should find out. We lack good information about this, although we hear many claims, some based on sound evidence, some not. Little research exists. Results may surprise us. For example, a very good recent study produced unexpected results: “A new study confirms that black men and women are treated differently in the hands of law enforcement. They are more likely to be touched, handcuffed, pushed to the ground or pepper sprayed by a police officer, even after accounting for how, where and when they encounter the police. But when it comes to the most lethal form of force — police shootings — the study finds no racial bias.” We need the facts as a foundation for discussion, decisions, and action.
Third, the solution of problems related to race and violence will require us to engage in one-on-one respectful treatment of our fellow human beings, to overcome deeply embedded elements of our culture. As Melvin Carter, Executive Director of the Minnesota Children’s Cabinet recently wrote, we need to keep “our eyes and our hearts open to seeing one another’s humanity”.
A picture and related story in the Washington Post brought Melvin’s words to mind. Many observers expected riots in Cleveland. Instead, in at least one significant instance, they found a block party. Black Lives and Blue Lives joined one another. People with differing political views danced together. As one dancing Cleveland resident said, “Stop all the white against black, black against white. It’s all about love. This is what Cleveland is about. This is what the world should be about.”
I hope that, in the coming months, we identify a means for Wilder Research to address this issue and assist in moving our community forward. Our community needs to collaborate to build a common framework and take real action. In the meanwhile, we must acknowledge that we won’t achieve our dream of an equitable society unless and until we accept one another, interacting in genuine kinship with others who differ from us on the surface, but who underneath share the same dreams, the same desire to build a just world for themselves, their children, and for all human beings.
Paul Mattessich, Ph.D., is Executive Director at Wilder Research and serves at chair of the Compass Governance Committee.