Almost half a century ago, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy said, “What we need in the United States is not hatred, what we need in the United States is not division, what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom and compassion for one another.” This is how presidential candidates once spoke.
Kennedy’s call was delivered from the back of a flatbed truck a few hours after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Those were troubled times and sometimes it feels like, “Here we go again.”
This year I’ve been asked more questions about officer-involved shootings than in my previous 20 years as a prosecutor. The laws regarding the use of deadly force are different for officers and civilians. There is good reason. Officers, unlike civilians, are expected to place themselves into potentially lethal confrontations to protect the community.
Officers can use deadly force to protect themselves or others from serious physical harm so long as they act in good faith and without malice.
In Pierce County, we have a protocol for officer-involved fatalities. We see, on average, six such incidents a year. There are independent and concurrent investigations by a law enforcement agency, the prosecutor’s office, and the medical examiner’s office. The prosecutor reviews these investigations and determines if the use of deadly force was lawful. If not, the prosecutor will charge the officer.
Further, the governor can ask the Washington attorney general to review the prosecutor’s findings. Gov. Jay Inslee recently did this in another county. With the governor’s authorization, the attorney general can charge the officer.
Additionally, the Department of Justice, through the United States attorney, also has authority to review officer-involved fatalities. The U.S. attorney can charge cases where federal statutes have been violated.
Many of us have seen the video where a South Carolina police officer shoots a fleeing black man in the back. The officer then appears to plant a Taser next to the dying man’s body.
The local prosecutor charged the officer with murder. The U.S. attorney indicted the officer for civil rights violations. Cases such as this, amplified by social media, combined with our country’s history of racism, have resulted in accusations arising even from lawful shootings.
Sometimes the facts do add up to murder. Sometimes the accusations arise because the facts are incorrectly reported. Sometimes the facts do not seem to matter.
Mistrust and misunderstanding are much too common. In a confrontation between a police officer and a civilian, mistrust and misunderstanding can be as fatal as malice.
When we stereotype each other, we make hate easier because we do not have empathy for stereotypes. “Thugs” and “the man” are “evil.”
When we vilify, we move toward violence. When we communicate, we move toward compassion.
I’ve recently attended vigils for officers and vigils for civilians, invoking Kennedy’s call repeatedly. At each vigil, we prayed for peace. We also need to act for peace.
“It is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized,” said Johann Wolfgang van Goethe. “If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”
We will enforce the law, but the law cannot cure afflictions of the heart. The antidote for ill will is compassion, the antidote for ignorance is wisdom, the antidote for hate is love.
Mark Lindquist is the elected Pierce County prosecutor, serving since 2009.