Few of us can truly appreciate what it must be like to be a cop in a volatile environment, faced with a life-or-death decision and only seconds to make it. It can't be easy. But these are the people, for better or worse, in whom we put immense trust. We train them the best we can, and we hope they make sound decisions. Because, after all, it's us—the public—who'll be looking at the ugly end of a cop's gun.
Although it's easy for an emotional public to criticize the police when a citizen is killed by a cop's gun, it's very often difficult to really know what transpired—mostly because the police are tight-lipped about the details. They publicly release a basic narrative of events that—whether it's true or not—justifies an officer's use of deadly force.
It goes something like this: Officers responded to a disturbance. Suspect was seen brandishing some sort of weapon. Officers ordered suspect to drop the weapon. Suspect refused. Officers repeated order several times. Suspect ignored orders. Suspect advanced on officers, who then had no choice but to shoot to kill. That's their story, and they stick to it through all the pro forma investigations, which almost always conclude that the homicide was justified.
At no point does the public get to know the details of the investigation. True, in San Diego we have a Citizens Review Board on Police Practices, which is supposed to hold the law-enforcement community accountable. But the frequency with which the review board agrees with the investigators' conclusions is cause for concern. At this stage, there doesn't appear to be much public faith in that system of checks and balances.
In the past year or so, San Diegans have been shot by police officers for “brandishing” some rather unconventional weapons—a rock, a brick, a tree branch, a hedge trimmer and a pair of pliers among them. As Kelly Davis reports in this week's issue, very often—probably more often than not—the person who gets shot is mentally ill and incapable of coping with a highly stressful situation. They react the only way they know how, and too often their reaction gets them killed. In some cases, we later learn that the victim had previously tried unsuccessfully to get help.
But they shouldn't have been in that predicament in the first place. If the state of California had any idea whatsoever how to take care of people afflicted with diseases of the mind, there would be no reason for this conversation and we could move on to solving the next problem. We're not so lucky. We can't seem to get indigent, mentally ill people the medication that would straighten them out, so—again—we have to talk about treating the symptom instead of doing what we should be doing, which is attacking the virus.
We'll wager that as more information about Daniel Woodyard becomes available, we'll learn that he was mentally impaired in some way. Woodyard was the homeless man in Ocean Beach shot by police on Feb. 4.
It's too bad the police have to become, in effect, mental health crisis workers, but because we decided a couple of decades ago to allow mentally ill people loose on the streets to fend for themselves, that's the situation we're in. Officers are receiving some training, but it's clear that more is needed. Yes, cops have to be able to control a potentially dangerous suspect in a volatile situation, but while many of the suspects require some use of force, those who are mentally ill don't deserve to die. All cops in San Diego have access to non-lethal weapons-they must make more and better use of them.
We believe the shooting of Daniel Woodyard is an indication that more training is necessary, and that police policies must be reviewed by a non-interested outside agency or task force. We urge the San Diego City Council to order such a review.