George Boardman: Police will just get more scrutiny if they don’t address the trust issue | TheUnion.com

George Boardman: Police will just get more scrutiny if they don’t address the trust issue

George Boardman
Columnist

The aftermath of the recent shooting of Stephon Clark by two Sacramento police officers shows once again that it is becoming increasingly difficult to trust officials when these incidents occur.

The cops — one white and one black — were responding to reports of a man vandalizing cars when they encountered Clark in the backyard of his grandmother's home. The police apparently thought this incident was so important that they dispatched a helicopter equipped with night vision technology to track down the 22-year-old black man.

The police immediately opened fire when they made contact with Clark, firing 20 rounds at him. The cops later said they thought Clark had a gun and was approaching them in a threatening manner.

The only weapon Clark had was a cell phone. An autopsy commissioned by his family revealed Clark was shot multiple times, once in the side and six times in the back. If he was approaching the police, he was backing up toward them. One more thing: The police turned off the audio of their body cameras shortly after the shooting occurred.

The police may well be telling the truth — it's easy to second-guess people after they make split-second life and death decisions — and there may be an innocent explanation for why the audio was turned off (I can't wait to hear it), but the actions to date suggest that the code of silence is once more being activated as civilian authorities question police conduct.

We've seen too many incidents in recent years where the police version of events doesn't square with the facts, and where egregious police behavior goes unpunished while people — generally black people — die.

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Two incidents in recent years make the point. Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old black with PCP in his system and a short knife in his hand, was shot multiple times by a Chicago policeman in 2014 less than a minute after the cop arrived at the scene. As usual, the cop claimed McDonald came at him in a threatening manner.

But video released more than a year later showed McDonald stumbling down the middle of a street, away from the cop who shot him. Almost a dozen cops witnessed the incident, and they backed-up the shooter's story. The video showed they were lying. The city charged the shooter with murder, and moved to fire him and four other officers.

Then there's the case of Alton Sterling, back in the news again recently when the state of Louisiana decided it wouldn't file charges against the cops responsible for his death. The two cops wrestled Sterling to the ground and were on top of him when one pulled his gun and shot him six times. That cop was fired and the other was given a three-day suspension.

Thanks to laws like the Peace Officers' Bill of Rights in California, it is difficult to get information on police use-of-force incidents and other actions that may be called into question. Except in the most egregious cases, law enforcement agencies have shown little appetite for disciplining their personnel. When it comes to the issue of applying force, courts have given the police wide latitude.

Thanks in part to the Clark shooting, several California legislators want to change that. Assembly members Shirley Webber, D-San Diego, and Kevin McCarthy, D-Sacramento, have introduced AB 931 to more narrowly define use of force.

The bill would permit lethal force only when it's "necessary," meaning when there is no other way to prevent "immediate" injury. Law enforcement officers whose own actions made such force necessary would no longer be justified in killing suspects.

"We want to put it in their mind that there are other options that they should utilize prior to that, that using deadly force is an extreme option," Webber said. "That's force you can't bring back."

State Senator Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, wants to put a dent in the Peace Officers' Bill of Rights with SB 14211, which would force law enforcement agencies to release the detail of use-of-force investigations, confirmed cases of sexual assault, and lying while on duty.

It's questionable if either of these bills will become law. Similar efforts have failed in the past, and police unions and other law enforcement advocates wield considerable power in Sacramento. The California Peace Officers Association has already come out in opposition to the Assembly bill. When given the choice, they'd rather hide behind the court rulings and laws currently on the books.

This attitude can be self-defeating in the long run. It's no secret that policemen are most effective when they have the trust and cooperation of the public, but that only comes when the public is convinced the police are operating in an ethical and trustworthy manner. If cops have the authority to take away my freedom or my life, I want them to be like Caesar's wife — above suspicion.

But police are viewed with suspicion when they address a controversial action by circling the wagons, and are slow to weed out the bad apples from their ranks.

Most people realize that police work is difficult and that split-second decisions are easy to criticize, but law enforcement will just bring more restrictions on itself if it refuses to be more open with the public when incidents like the Clark shooting occur.

George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at ag101board@aol.com.

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