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The Courage to Disarm

Robert C. Koehler

The Ferguson tragedy, like all those that preceded it and all that will follow — involving the trivial and panicky use of lethal force, by the police or anyone else — stirs up questions the social status quo doesn’t dare face.

My sister, Sue Melcher, put it this way: “I find myself also nauseated that another issue never seems to enter the discussion: the issue that a highly trained officer could make such a mistake with a gun demonstrates that just having the weapon present increased the danger of the situation. Had the citizens been armed, how many more casualties could there have been? None of us is ‘healthy’ enough to be trusted to use lethal force wisely — and is that even possible?”

The “wise” use of lethal force . . .

We’ve wrapped our global civilization around the certainty that we understand and revere life in all its vastness and mystery so completely that we know when to cut it short, indeed, that we — those of us who are officially sanctioned good guys — have a right to cut it short in, it would seem, an ever-widening array of circumstances. In so doing, we allegedly make life better for the social whole. This is called militarism. To keep this profitable lie going, we refuse to look deeply at its consequences.

When we inflict death on distant cultures, at the sterile remove that modern weapons grant us, we can avoid all but the most cursory awareness of the consequences of our actions. But when we do it at home, it’s not always so easy.

Ferguson, Ferguson. A community — and a nation — erupted in agony at the hellish absurdity of Michael Brown’s killing. One of the deeper, darker questions concealed in the maelstrom of rage and grief of Ferguson is this one: What if Officer Darren Wilson had not been armed when he told the two teenagers to get out of the street? What if the police force that employed him knew of, and practiced, effective, nonlethal forms of keeping order in the community (and did not regard the people it was “protecting” as the enemy)? This is not a simple question, but it has a simple answer. Michael Brown would be alive and Darren Wilson would not be in hiding.

But no one is asking it because the popular imagination doesn’t even entertain the possibility that such methods exist — or can be created.

I ask this question now not to toss a superficial answer or two at the national and global violence epidemic we’re caught in but to establish, first of all, the idea that violence has consequences and, furthermore, that having lethal force at one’s fingertips also has consequences. “None of us is ‘healthy’ enough to be trusted to use lethal force wisely,” Sue wrote. This is true if only because such power can always be wrested away from us, and knowing this is bound to bring an intensified level of panic into someone’s decision-making process — even a trained professional’s.

The demand for police accountability that the Ferguson tragedy has unleashed is a demand for public scrutiny of an officer’s state of mind when he makes the decision to use lethal force. At present, such accountability is murky, contained as it is within the police and legal community. Most likely, these communities will protect their own and cut officers slack for acting out of panic.

Consider what Michael Bell learned during his campaign for police accountability. Bell, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force whose 21-year-old son was killed by a police officer in Kenosha, Wis., in 2004, eventually won a wrongful death lawsuit in the incident and used the $1.75 million settlement to pursue a campaign for stricter police accountability in Wisconsin.

Writing recently in Politico, Bell noted the results of the campaign’s research: “In 129 years since police and fire commissions were created in the state of Wisconsin, we could not find a single ruling by a police department, an inquest or a police commission that a shooting was unjustified.”

What concerns me about this isn’t so much the protection of police officers who use lethal force unnecessarily as the protection of lethal force itself. This is what gets off scot free time and again, in shooting after shooting, and therefore remains unquestioned as a necessary part of social order. If the consequences of lethal force were subjected to objective scrutiny, I believe we’d be looking for alternatives with far more seriousness.

Bell’s son, for instance, was killed in the course of a routine traffic stop. According to the police report, one officer screamed that his gun had been grabbed and a second officer shot the young man in the head, “sticking the gun so close against his temple that he left a muzzle imprint.”

Because the Bell family hired a private investigator, they learned details of their son’s killing independently of the legal system, e.g., “that the officer who thought his gun was being grabbed in fact had caught it on a broken car mirror,” Bell wrote. In other words, a minor misperception escalated instantly into a fatal shooting, ending a young man’s life and inflicting a lifetime of grief on those who loved him. Not only that, it shattered the life of at least one of the officers involved. The officer who screamed that his gun had been grabbed committed suicide six years later.

Violence explodes in every direction. According to the Badge of Life website, U.S. police officers commit suicide at a rate of 17 per 100,000 officers, well above the rate of the general public and close to that of the U.S. military. It’s also well above the rate of officers who are killed in the line of duty.

“Particularly startling in the study was the finding that not a single suicide in 2008 (or 2009) was ever attributed to police work,” the site notes. “While police departments announce that law enforcement is a ‘highly stressful, traumatic job,’ they prefer to place the blame for a suicide on the family or on the officer for having some kind of ‘personal problem.’”

Lethal force gets off scot free.

As militarization of the police escalates and our brutal wars for profit come home to haunt us, the time has come to face the violence we bring on one another in the name of social order. The time has come to find the courage to disarm.


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Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. Koehler has been the recipient of multiple awards for writing and journalism from organizations including the National Newspaper Association, Suburban Newspapers of America, and the Chicago Headline Club.  He’s a regular contributor to such high-profile websites as Common Dreams and the Huffington Post. Eschewing political labels, Koehler considers himself a “peace journalist. He has been an editor at Tribune Media Services and a reporter, columnist and copy desk chief at Lerner Newspapers, a chain of neighborhood and suburban newspapers in the Chicago area. Koehler launched his column in 1999. Born in Detroit and raised in suburban Dearborn, Koehler has lived in Chicago since 1976. He earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Columbia College and has taught writing at both the college and high school levels. Koehler is a widower and single parent. He explores both conditions at great depth in his writing. His book, "Courage Grows Strong at the Wound" (2016). Contact him or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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