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AMEND CORNER: Continuing the conversation

Sometimes, producing this column comes easily.

Last week, it didn’t. I rewrote the last three paragraphs at least half a dozen times before submitting them with what turned out to be a flawed sentence.

I finally corrected it and got an ending I liked, but only with help from above — i.e. above me in the Tribune hierarchy, not Heaven. This was somewhat embarrassing, since for most of my life, people have been asking me for help with their writing, not the other way around. I got over it in a couple of minutes, though.

My problem was trying to stuff too much into the space I usually get for my column.  The editor indulged me with a couple extra inches to work with, but still my essay wasn’t quite finished. So here is, as they say, the rest of the story, plus a bit more.

In the wake of several incidents involving police shootings, there have been questions about the tactics police used in each case. Were the tactics that led to Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo., really necessary? Could the police have found a less confrontational way to approach the siztuation? After all, the incident apparently began because Brown was walking in the street instead of on the sidewalk. While he may well have been creating a safety hazard, it doesn’t seem something to be shot for, even given the ill will that apparently existed between the police and the black residents of Ferguson.

I wonder, for instance, how the officer approached Brown. Did he ask or did he order, and what tone of voice did he use? Did he speak in a calm, respectful tone, or was it threatening or demeaning?  Speaking as a long-time teacher of teenagers like Brown, the difference is important, a lesson I learned early and often forgot, to my regret. There is a great deal of truth in the Biblical instruction that “A soft answer turneth away wrath.”

Still, the soft answer approach doesn’t always work, especially when a kid is with friends and has to save face; but did the officer try other options? He might have attempted to engage Brown in a dialogue in an attempt to avoid confrontation. If that didn’t work, could the officer have disengaged and waited for assistance?

I also wonder if, had the officer done nothing at all, Brown might have, in due course, moved from the street to the sidewalk and survived to this day.

I don’t know enough about the incident to answer these questions, and it’s possible there’s no way the officer could have defused the situation. All I can say for sure is, I find it troubling that a person can be shot for the offense of walking in the street.

Since writing that column, I found another reaction to this and other shootings in an essay by Ta-Nehissi Coates, a writer for “The Atlantic.”

In the case of Walter Scott, the man shot in South Carolina, which I discussed last week, Coates wonders why the police officer thought it was worth stopping the victim for a broken tail light. Coates assumes Scott ran because there was an arrest warrant out for him for failing to pay child support, and he didn’t want to go to jail. Coates questions whether the criminal justice system is the way to handle such cases. If a man hasn’t paid child support, probably because he can’t afford it, is arrest and incarceration the proper way to handle him? Couldn’t social services caseworkers contact him and deal with it as a civil case for a family court, rather than a criminal dragged off to jail as a dangerous criminal?

Coates cites other cases, such as the recent shooting of an un-armed mentally ill man who took his clothes off and was jumping off his balcony, and a man who was chasing cars because he was high on mushrooms.

In short, Coates argues we have gone overboard when we call the police, who are trained to fight crime, and we shouldn’t expect them to be family counselors, mental health professionals or social service caseworkers.

Walter Scott ran out of fear, not just of the police, but of the entire justice system. If his difficulty with child support payments had instead been resolved by social services working through a family court, he would still be alive today. Instead, a bullet has guaranteed that he will never make those payments.

Police shootings will happen. Often they will be justified, but law enforcement agencies must do everything possible to avoid unnecessary deaths. That means evaluating policies and tactics as well as the behavior of their officers, and it means prosecuting officers whose actions are criminal.

But the rest of us need to evaluate our own perceptions of the role of police officers. Are there more effective ways of dealing with deadbeat dads and neighbors with mental breakdowns or adverse drug reactions than tossing them in jail? If there are, we can avoid events such as we have seen recently. Even more important, we can free police officers to deal with crime.

A final note: this week’s news includes an Ohio officer who, despite having considerable justification for shooting a suspect in a double murder, refrained from doing so and took the man into custody alive.

I hope to read more stories like that and fewer about shootings in the future.

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