Editor's note: Last year, the Minnesota Urban Debate League and Star Tribune Opinion put out a contest call to students between the ages 10 and 18: The task was to create an original written essay, video or audio file that described one or two specific changes our community, state or nation should make to reduce racial inequities and injustices in the criminal justice system. The following is one of the finalists. Click here for more information and a full list of winners.
On July 6, 2016, African American Philando Castile was shot five times and killed by Officer Jeronimo Yanez after Castile was pulled over for a broken brake light. Yanez had asked Castile for his license and registration and Castile informed the officer that he had a firearm on him. As Castile reached for his ID, Yanez told him not to pull out his firearm as Castile repeatedly insisted that he was not. Yanez then fired seven rapid shots into the car.
Unfortunately, Castile's death is not an isolated event. In the United States, around 1,000 people are shot and killed by police each year, and only half of those victims are armed with a gun. And although African Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population, they make up 31% of people killed by police and 39% of those killed while not attacking. Experts on de-escalation stated that Yanez (who was tried and found not guilty) lacked the proper training to gauge the situation as it was he who escalated it. Recent events of injustice, like Castile's death, have called attention to long-ignored aggressive actions and accountability of the police. Combining a greater number of de-escalation tactics to weapons training, updating police tactics to emphasize human rights, and modifying the arbitration system to reduce the capability of corrupt cops to shield themselves will be a major step forward in reducing police violence.
Current police training requirements are alarmingly low and emphasize weapon use and survival over peaceful resolutions. According to the Department of Justice, in 2013 basic training programs lasted about three weeks, excluding field training. Police academies require an average of 168 hours of training with weapons, defensive tactics and use of force, including 71 hours of firearm training. In contrast, only around 21 hours are split among agency policies, de-escalation tactics and crisis intervention strategies.
De-escalation helps officers slow down and communicate in intense scenarios, rather than automatically reach for a gun, and reduces miscommunications with the mentally ill. Several police departments have already implemented de-escalation training and have seen significantly positive results. After the Dallas Police Department emphasized de-escalation over confrontation, complaints alleging excessive use of force per year dropped from 147 to 13 in six years, and the number of shootings involving police fell from 23 to one in 2012 alone. Adding more emphasis on de-escalation training rather than weapons would be beneficial, especially for those with mental illness. An article by APM Reports stated, "Officers trained … were more likely to verbally engage mentally ill people … [and] call for mental health transport [rather] than to simply haul them to jail."
While making de-escalation training mandatory may partly reduce the cases of police brutality, adjusting the procedure of police arbitration should help reinforce accountability and ensure that the cops who misuse their power are fired. The final word in disciplinary actions against police in many jurisdictions is not given by the chief of police or a civilian board but by an arbitrator whom the police and the union have the power to select. Therefore, there are numerous cases in which officers who have abused their powers are brought back into the workforce. The recently passed Minnesota Police Accountability Act includes a change to the system, creating a panel of arbitrators to handle police misconduct cases. The new panel ensures that qualified people make decisions for the subject they have knowledge in. This bill could potentially bolster the authority of police chiefs across the state to terminate rogue officers and strengthen accountability in their departments.Those departments will then be able to build stronger, more trustworthy connections with their communities. Limiting the authority of arbitrators is essential to maintaining higher standards of accountability.
The prevalence of police brutality is a longstanding effect of racial injustice in the American criminal justice system. Introducing more de-escalation in basic police training helps officers better deal with intense situations and protects the mentally ill; adjustments in the arbitration system are working to ensure that police who abuse their power are not rehired. To avoid unnecessary deaths like Castile's and lessen police brutality, we must make de-escalation training mandatory to ensure nonviolent training is emphasized and change the arbitration system to strengthen accountability.
The writers are students in Mahtomedi.