Saturday, March 17, 2012

Police in the New Orleans Killing Fields

Police shootings are almost routine here in New Orleans. On the first day of this month, New Orleans police officers shot and killed Justin Sipp and wounded Sipp’s brother after a traffic stop near Delgado Community College. Members of Sipp’s family are outraged and demand an investigation . While it is difficult to know what actually happened, two police officers were also shot and wounded during the stop. It is hard to imagine that the officers shot themselves with planted weapons in order to cover up, but it is theoretically possible that the police opened fire first and that these two citizens responded with their own (illegal) weapons in self-defense.

Justin Sipp
The killing of 20 year-old Wendell Allen by police during a drug raid on Allen’s home on March 7  lends itself less easily to explanation by the police.  Officer Joshua Colclough shot Allen in the chest inside the home, at close range. Allen was unarmed at the time.  The only defense of Colclough’s action so far has been provided by Fraternal Order of Police spokesman Raymond Burkart III, who described serving a search warrant as a high-stress, terrifying situation for an officer, remarking, “you don’t know who’s on the other side of that door, if people are hiding, if people are armed or unarmed.”

Wendell Allen
I don’t want to leap to conclusions about events before the facts are out. The New Orleans police do have a history of shooting people, But just as we can’t assume that high crime rates in the city and the criminal records of many of those shot by the police mean that the officers were innocent, so we can’t assume police guilt because of the past sins of some officers. What I want to do here is ask the broader question: why do the police in New Orleans so often have their fingers on their triggers?
While we may be reluctant to accept Raymond Burkart’s comments as an excuse in a particular case, his observations can be very helpful for understanding why police violence occurs in a place like New Orleans. As we know only too well, in war soldiers sometimes kill innocents and engage in other moral violations. This is due to the stress of warfare and to the tendency of war to erase the norms that guide everyday behavior. New Orleans is a city at war, a continual, disorganized, Hobbesian war.
Murder Rates in US and Selected Cities, 2010
Source: FBI, UniformCrime Reports, 2010
In 2010, the murder rate for the United States was 4.8 per 100,000 and the violent crime rate was 403.6 per 100,000. New Orleans had violent crime rate of 727.7 per 100,000 and an astonishing murder rate of 49.1 per 100,000, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report for that year.  This was even higher than other crime capitals such as Baltimore, Detroit, and Washington, D.C. Moreover, the crime rate in New Orleans was highly concentrated in neighborhood and in demographic composition. Whenever the New Orleans police pull over a car or go into a house on the orders of their superiors, there is a good chance that someone is going to start shooting at them.
Police violence in New Orleans, then, is a part of the larger problem of violence in the city. The authorities can punish individual police officers for excessive use of force. They can attempt to improve training. But the police are going to continue acting like nervous soldiers in a war zone as long as the city remains a war zone.

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