...I'm okay with being REALITY-based.

Tuesday, May 20, 2003
      ( 10:15 AM )
Cops Behaving Badly

Yet another police officer is not at fault for shooting someone dead. While most circumstances would indicate that an officer may be acting in self defense or in the line of duty when he shoots a suspect, in the most recent case here in Portland the facts are a little different. The news today relates that a grand jury found no criminal intent in Officer Scott McCollister’s deadly shooting of Kendra James several weeks ago. Many have blogged about this issue from a civil rights point of view already. I just wanted to raise it not only because of the finding today, but also because the incident happened near my neighborhood and the people in my part of town are reeling from the effect of it.

As a recap, the incident occurred when a car was pulled over at about 2:30 a.m. for running a stop sign. The driver was taken from the car and while he was being interrogated, Ms. James, who was in the passenger seat, slid into the driver’s seat. From reports, she was very agitated and tried to drive the car away from the scene (from what I can tell, it never went anywhere). Meanwhile, McCollister managed to get “80 percent” of his body inside the car on the driver’s side. (WTF???) The shooting happened when he claims she was driving forward and he felt himself falling backwards and he “knew” she was going to drag him down the street to his death. He shot upwards through her hip and the bullet lodged in her chest, killing her. The grand jury heard the testimony of cops and witnesses on the scene and heard seven conflicting accounts of the event. Thus, they could not determine criminal intent by the cop, and concluded he’d acted within the purview of the law (“to protect themselves or others from what they reasonably believe to be an immediate threat of death or serious physical injury”).

It’s not news that a cop isn’t found guilty in shooting a suspect or bystander. This happens all the time. I find much of the local commentary falling in the cop’s favor: he is so beleaguered by this whole event, his reputation and work record tarnished, he was almost killed, and after all, she was a crack whore. I haven’t seen one news report yet that fails to mention that Ms. James did cocaine. This evidently establishes her postmortem guilt as a cop-killer. What I don’t understand is WHY was McCollister in the car the way he describes? He claims he was trying to pull her out of the car...but 80% of his body in the driver's side???

McCollister said that the police department “has not provided much training on what to do when a suspect is resisting arrest.” So, since you don’t have the wherewithal to call over some of the other cops and spray pepper spray at her or something like that, you fire your gun straight into her body, point blank? While he probably isn't lying when he says he felt that he might have been killed, shouldn’t there have been another way of handling the situation from the start? Just like in New York, the cops may have felt that Amadou Diallo was going to shoot them, but they weren’t practicing any other options other than just opening fire on him (many of those shots entering his body after he’d fallen), and later finding out he didn’t have gun.

The same situation is true here. While there are always going to be racial undertones to situations like this (and most of the time they are a major factor in the incident), especially here in Portland where the white cops and non-white neighborhoods often clash, there is another aspect to this problem. If police departments aren’t training cops in alternative ways to handle potentially violent situations, how to handle suspects who are physically out of control without killing them, and even how to let a situation go until a cooler time (i.e., not forcing your entire body into the car, but perhaps waiting until other officers come to assist, or just simply letting her go and going after her later in a less volatile situation), then the incidents of cops just shooting their guns and killing people are going to continue to rise.

I put the onus on the police department here. While I also blame the individual cop who seemed not to be thinking at that time, I strongly believe that police departments around this country are not investing in conflict resolution training, non-violent options for their cops, or even non-lethal self-defense skills, and that this is going to produce more and more costly events, in lives and money and community relations. Yes, our community needs to work harder on helping young mothers like Kendra James stay off cocaine and find hope and direction for their lives. But I also believe that the perception in a community of who has the power is a very large determining factor in how kids like Kendra will make choices. And when the people with the power find their first resort to be shooting at and/or killing people in tense or scary situations, then there are only going to be more Kendra Jameses without hope or direction or motivation to avoid those guns pointed at them. It’s on the people who have the power to make the difference. In this case, the power was in the hands of the cops at the scene, the police department and the systems in place that led to this horrible event.

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