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Crime, Law & Justice

Unpacking Videos of Police Shootings

Rowan Moore Gerety

Over the past year, a string of police killings of unarmed Black men has prompted a national conversation around use of force and racial bias in policing. It’s a conversation often shaped by viral videos documenting those incidents.

At the Criminal Justice Training Center in Burien, instructor Russ Hicks spends part of every day scanning the internet for commentary and videos on officer-involved violence around the country. As a string of police killings of unarmed black men has focused the attention of the country on use of force and racial bias in policing, Hicks says many of the clips he sees are brought forward by his students, often within hours of their release.
“At the start of the class I usually go, ‘How’s everyone doing?’ and right away the hands start coming up,” Hicks says. “And they’ll go, ‘Sir, did you see what happened in…?’
It’s the start of a conversation Hicks tries to have with his students every day. “It’s that important politically, which is a reality in this job, and it’s important to their families,” he says. “Where are we going as police? Why did you do this? Are they going to be put in harm’s way? The families are asking the same questions as the media, the same questions as the students themselves are.”
As cameras and social media fuel skepticism of the police, Hicks sees many police recruits who reflect changing attitudes toward the profession. In a recent roleplaying exercise, a student playing a suspect paused to ask the officer why he was being questioned in the first place.
“When I heard that student question ‘why,’” Hicks says, I thought, ‘That’s where we’re at right now.’ You may have to explain what you’re doing, people are not just going to do what the police say anymore. And that’s ok.”
The recruit who asked ‘why’ is Gregory Baker. Where he grew up, in Kent, Baker says fear and suspicion of the police were taken for granted. When it comes to controversial videos, he says his friends and family tend to have a pretty consistent point of view.
“They’ll look at it and say, ‘that’s a bad cop,’ or ‘that’s excessive force,’ Baker says. “In class, we look at it as a way to ask, what could we do different?”
Of course, not all America’s police academies are likely to use these violent episodes as case studies for reform. Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who teaches law at the University of South Carolina, points out that some instructors “could watch those videos and say, ‘That’s exactly what should have been done. So public criticism be damned.’”
Historically, Stoughton says police have been far too quick to brush off community concerns and allegations of misconduct. But police academies have a unique opportunity to move the needle: For recruits, basic training is the start of a fundamental shift in perspective, from citizen to officer.
So it makes sense to have hard conversations about community-police relations during that transition. “It gives them the opportunity to look at what’s going on in the world through two different lenses,” Stoughton says. “Their old civilian lens, and the lens of the police officer they’re in the very first stages of becoming.”
Stoughton says cultivating that double vision can prove invaluable throughout an officer’s career. But it can also alienate a recruit from the department he’s about to go work for. “It’s almost universal in policing for a police officer to graduate from the academy, start work at his agency, and be told ‘forget everything you learned at the academy, now you’re going to learn how it works on the street.’”
Russ Hicks firmly believes most recruits sign up with their hearts in the right place. When you start basic training, “You want to help people, you truly care about people,” he says. “We want to make sure that you’re there and you stay there--because what happens in this profession is that the informal culture will pull you away from that, and you become kind of cold, or calloused, or uncaring.”

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