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Death by arrest. Be it New York City or Ferguson, Missouri, there is frustration at a broken system and society. Why? There are too many things to count. Every incident has its own circumstances and details, but it ultimately become the substance of sentiments of all kinds.

The Unavoidable Angle of Race

We cannot say this is NOT about race, though not just the obvious way you might think. Yes, there is a concern that many such incidents would not have occurred if the citizen wasn’t ‘Black’ and the officer ‘White’. People of Color still to some extent live a different life than the rest of us, dealing with suspicions and accusations that in spite of criminalizing discrimination still exists. Yes, DWB is a real thing.

But the reverse is true also. If racial roles were reversed, the media may never have covered it. The events fit the model of oppression by “The Man”, whether it is the case or not. It raises sensitivities, not just to bleeding hearts and race-baiters, but to people old enough to remember being on the verge or race war in the 60s.

But the formula of “No Justice, No Peace” is applied more broadly today. It is less divisive along lines of skin and heritage, and more along lines of “haves” and “have-nots”. Issues of police brutality and militarization are nearly mainstream concerns. Which bring me to the next aspect of all of this …

Authority Without Accountability

What can only be described as growing outrage is deeper than skin color. The fundamental reason people take to the streets and even riot (excuses for looting aside) is that people believe they are powerless within the protocols of the system. At the risk of advocating sedition and vigilantism, I believe that is an ethically defensible position.

If justice is not available through legal and political channels, it must, on the grounds of basic human rights, be available outside of them. Our Founding Fathers pledged their fortunes, lives, and sacred honour on that, as have multitudes of revolutionaries throughout time. But as Americans, it’s perhaps more endemic to our cultural DNA than most.

The problem is that such a stance cannot be taken lightly, as less than a last resort. And worse of all, it may deny the alleged offenders and collaborators the same due process that we are, in an implied sense, fighting for. When one brick of the system fails us and we knock it out, we risk bringing down the whole wall. Special cases, involving even the most just independent citizen actions, might escalate and devolve into a more casual precedent. Or they might not. Either way, the world needs less violence meeting less violence and not the contrapositive.

The Big Picture

My daughter asked me, in 25 seconds or less, for my opinion on the man choked to death by NYPD officers. I won’t give you my answer here, because it was based on unestablished hypotheticals and assumptions, not even having seen the video at the time. But stepping back, the undiscussed angle to all of this is the very pervasiveness of publicly made and available video.

Citizens and officers alike can protect themselves with such transparency via technology. Again, this all relates to technology. But there’s another, let’s say, “messier” aspect. With everyone able to see what happened, everyone is more comfortable making a judgment — and possibly a justification for rejecting a decision of law.

We, the general public, are not trained in law enforcement or have experience what it is like. This doesn’t give anyone a free pass, and there is no excuse for a Blue Wall in a free society. My contention will always be that having greater responsibility means being held to a higher standard. But as horrible as arguably avoidable deaths are, it is not a simple determination one can make from the other end of a YouTube channel.

Pundits and social media don’t help either. It is irrelevant if a citizen has a previous criminal record, or even if they were breaking the law. Killing an unarmed man is wrong, and not made less so by the invoking of facts to prejudice ourselves against the individual.

Sorry, Still No Easy Answer

But how wrong is any given death? Death is death, but context is still everything. Each case must be seen on its own merit and not merely our historical, national sentiments and beliefs about African-Americans, racism, and authority.

Some deaths could be avoided by not unduly profiling in the first place. Others, not so much. But in the end, an officer must make the call. If they have a history of bad calls, there should be hell to pay, and not just for the officer. I support accountability, and at some point, if abuse is blatant enough, people will take the matter into their own hands, and I can’t say I would blame them.

A friend once described such situations as a “union issue” oddly enough. It was about the quality and standards of a profession, and needs to be addressed to protect the whole “industry” or “workforce”. A few bad apples can’t stay in the barrel. But they often do.

But barring that, let’s think more proactively. How about better training and education, both in profiling AND in skillfully applying varying use of force? Society isn’t a war zone, as much as we metaphorically apply it to some streets of some cities. A shoplifter doesn’t necessarily have (or doesn’t have) a gun because of their appearance, and the goal is not to kill or capture at all costs. Most law enforcement knows this, even in the worst of neighborhoods.

The point is that working with the public is a safety issue involving high standards of judgement and skills. We should both expect that of our law enforcement officers and respect them for it in so much as they strive for such.

There Are Many Answers

Every time an event such as that in Fergeson or New York City — and it’s nothing new if you don’t have a very short memory — the situation is a jumble of debates, justifications, outrage, and call to action. Let’s take a hard look at the issues we don’t want to think are still issues, and work with the ones we know about. No matter what the individual circumstance, better accountability and training will go a long way to make such incidents fewer and farther between.