Thoughts in the Wake of Eric Harris’s Death

If I were to imagine a police sting gone wrong, an operation wherein the victim was accidentally killed by one of the officers on duty, it would probably unfold in a manner almost identical to what we’ve seen in the Eric Harris footage that’s been in the news lately and making rounds on social media. You might speculate that racial motivations lay behind the execution of Walter Scott or, to invoke namesakes, the strangling of Eric Garner, no matter how much and how deeply I hope to the contrary; but as far as I can tell, everything in this most recent travesty points to an unfortunate, though honest, mistake, plain and simple, albeit the kind of mistake one would expect to see when some geriatric rent-a-cop (actually, I think it’s called “pay-to-play”) is given permission to handle a deadly weapon that looks all too much like a taser.

Perhaps I should be a bit kinder to Mr. Bates as the immediate disposal of the still smoking gun and concomitant apology strikes my eyes and ears as nothing less than a sincere expression of shock and disbelief at what had just happened, while the aggression, brutality, and callous disregard exhibited by the accompanying patrolmen bring to mind a passage from Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.

David Grossman, a former army lieutenant colonel and the author of On Killing, argues that the optimal state of “arousal” — the range in which stress improves performance — is when our heart rate is between 115 and 145 beats per minute . . .

“After 145,” Grossman says, “bad things begin to happen. Complex motor skills start to break down. Doing something with one hand and not the other becomes very difficult . . . At 175, we being to see an absolute breakdown of cognitive processing . . . The forebrain shuts down, and the mid-brain — the part of your brain that is the same as your dog’s (all mammals have that part of the brain) — reaches up and hijacks the forebrain. Have you ever tried to have a discussion with an angry or frightened human being? You can’t do it . . . You might as well try to argue with your dog.” Vision becomes even more restricted. Behavior becomes inappropriately aggressive . . . [emphasis mine]

This is precisely the reason that many police departments in recent years have banned high-speed chases. It’s not just because of the dangers of hitting some innocent bystander during the chase, although that is clearly part of the worry, since about three hundred Americans are killed accidentally every year during chases. It’s also because of what happens after the chase, since pursuing a suspect at high speed is precisely the kind of activity that pushes police officers into this dangerous high arousal. “The L.A. riot was started by what cops did to Rodney King at the end of the high-speed chase,” says James Fyfe, head of training for the NYPD, who has testified in many brutality cases.

However one feels about the previous law enforcement encounters that have made headlines over the past couple years (and weeks), I find it remarkably difficult to interpret this one as anything more than a mishap of the most tragic kind, fueled by the incompetence and poor judgement of whoever decided it would be a good idea to send an elderly reserve officer into a high pressure and volatile situation. Robert Bates deserves the conviction of second-degree manslaughter since “culpable negligence” is precisely how his behavior ought to be defined. The real responsibility, though, lies with the Tulsa County Police Department who should have never allowed this situation to happen and should have been far more diligent in assessing the type of work Officer Bates was being assigned.

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