Rendell: Change begins with honest conversation on crime and police

Rendell: Change begins with honest conversation on crime and police
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If you are like me, nothing makes you madder than to hear politicians say a victim’s family is in their “thoughts and prayers” after a shooting. So many elected officials in Congress and state legislatures do a lot of thinking and praying after each episode in America’s unending series of gun violence, but they can’t muster the courage to do anything else. And after each mass shooting, I say to myself, “That was so bad, it’s going to finally be the one to cause our electeds to have some backbone and enact real change.” But each time, my hopes are dashed.

After the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, I thought surely the sight of innocent 5- and 6-year-olds getting slaughtered would bring about change. But nothing happened. When a gunman terrorized a music festival in Las Vegas in 2017, killing a record 58 people, I felt certain that this would motivate change. Sadly, we got more “thoughts and prayers” but no substantive change. When the 2018 shootings occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., the teenage survivors resolved to not rest until real change occurred, and I felt certain their commitment would catalyze real progress. Unbelievably, nothing happened — even though polls consistently show more than 90 of Americans want universal background checks for gun purchases.

Now, after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, with other such incidents from around the country having come to light, we have an amazing reaction: People around the country, Black and white, young and old, rich and poor, rose up to protest. They are demonstrating against systemic racism not just in big cities, but in hundreds of cities and towns across the U.S., even towns with few African American residents. These protests mostly center around the unjustified, racially motivated use of excessive force by police. The marches have been incredible to watch, and they continue. Again, I’ve thought: “This is it — this may be the inflection point where we enact real change in our laws and our culture that pervades the criminal justice system.”

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Several cities and a few states are changing their laws to bring about some positive change, but I am not sure this will significantly affect our culture. I believe that to achieve what we need, we must have frank, open discussions about policing, crime, and the way we produce police forces that truly “protect and serve.” 

We need to hold discussions in every American city that has a significant police force, so that officers understand the viewpoints, fears and apprehension of many citizens. Civilians, in turn, must understand the viewpoints, fears and apprehension that police feel while on the job. Once these discussions happen, some basic changes in culture and training should follow. It is enormously important that police understand why so many citizens are scared of them — but it’s just as important for ordinary citizens and advocacy groups to appreciate the difficult reality of a police officer’s job. Police often have no more than a split second to make a decision, and sometimes they lack training or options to make the best decision.  

As an example, consider the police killing of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta. Officers were called to a Wendy’s parking lot because Mr. Brooks fell asleep in his car, and they gave him a sobriety test. The details are disputed but, at some point, Mr. Brooks started to scuffle with an officer, took his taser, and began to run away. The officers chased him and Mr. Brooks turned to fire the taser, then continued to run. An officer fired two shots that hit him in the back, killing him. 

The law says police can use deadly force only to stop the escape of someone who has committed murder or used deadly force, or has the intent to commit murder or serious injury. If that’s not the case, the police cannot use deadly force to stop someone. The Atlanta Police Department defines a taser as a non-deadly weapon, so there is no way the police could have considered this taser as deadly. It appears the shooting was excessive, unjustified use of force. 

But let’s change one fact and say that, instead, Mr. Brooks took a pistol and, while running away, turned to fire at the officers but missed. In that situation, if he continued to run and police shot him in the back, it would be a close case — he attempted to use deadly force, yet he had his back turned when shot. Since he had fired two shots already, it would be reasonable for the officers to believe that he may harm someone else and the verdict probably would be justifiable homicide by police.

When I was an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, I tried a case in which a police officer was charged with murder and manslaughter for fatally shooting a 16-year-old white boy. The officer had seen the young man hanging out with other teens, yelling at passersby. The officer told them to go home, and went on his way. An hour and a half later, he saw the teenager again, this time drinking from a 40-ounce bottle of beer. The officer got out of his car and told the young man to put down the bottle and go home. Instead, the teenager lunged at the officer while holding the bottle, and the officer shot him once in the chest. The jury took two and half days before finding the officer not guilty. The defense’s theory was that the beer bottle could be considered a deadly weapon, because it could be smashed over the officer’s head or could sever an artery. My argument was that the young man carried the bottle by its fat end and could only shove it at the office but could not smash it.

To this day, I believe my argument was sound and that the officer should have been convicted of manslaughter. But let’s put ourselves in the officer’s shoes: When he met the teenager a second time that night, the young man was drunk, belligerent and refused to go home. The officer had seconds to decide what to do. Perhaps he could have hit the kid with a baton, or aimed for his legs. He had a moment to determine whether the bottle was a deadly weapon. Is it asking too much of an officer to always make the right decision? It probably is, but proper training would help the officer recognize a situation that should not end with deadly force.

So, let’s have these discussions all over the country, allowing good cops to explain their side and people to express their feelings about how police treat black and brown people. We can change our culture in America, but it won’t be easy. Still, we must try — and one of the best ways to start is to understand the pressures that are built into the administration of justice on the streets and in the courts.  

Edward G. Rendell was the 45th governor of Pennsylvania. He is a former mayor of Philadelphia and former district attorney in that city. He served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee during the 2000 presidential election. Follow him on Twitter @GovEdRendell.