The shooting on Capitol Hill of Miriam Carey, an unarmed woman who refused police commands to stop her car, was a familiar situation for any veteran of the Iraq War, with one significant difference — rather than moving through a progressive escalation of force while attempting to defuse the situation, Capitol Hill police officers went straight for their firearms and shot to kill. Since returning from my service as an Army combat medic in Baghdad six years ago, I have watched American police become more aggressively violent than my fellow soldiers and I were ever trained to be.
Much of the Iraq War was about securing neighborhoods, and much of that work was done by soldiers manning checkpoints, like the checkpoints Carey drove through during the incident that led to her death. Had this incident occurred in Baghdad and not Washington, D.C., the soldiers manning the checkpoint would have first drawn their weapons as the police officers did, but before firing at the driver would have fired into the ground in front of her and into her engine in an attempt to disable the car, as well as employing nonlethal munitions to smash through her windshield and lasers to temporarily blind her. Capitol Hill police did none of these things. After drawing their weapons, their first response to Carey’s refusal to cooperate was to open fire in a busy area of a major city. The video shows that they did not fire into the ground nor to disable her car, but clearly were aiming to kill Carey for disobeying their commands to exit her car. No nonlethal methods were attempted and nonlethal munitions, considered an essential piece of equipment for any checkpoint in Baghdad, may not have been available at these checkpoints in the US capital.
In Iraq in 2007, the year I spent in Baghdad, nine hundred Americans were killed along with 23,000 Iraqis per IraqBodyCount.com. By comparison, in that same year 75 American policemen died violently, despite American cops outnumbering American soldiers in Iraq by a factor of four. While of course the American invasion of Iraq caused far more death and destruction than anything American police have yet done, an examination of the policies set in place by military and police leadership respectively leads to troubling conclusions. While horrendous abuses were of course perpetrated on the Iraqi people, including not least the invasion itself, police in the U.S. are regularly encouraged to behave far more aggressively toward American citizens than our officers directed us to behave toward Iraqis.
Stories of cops doing things soldiers are forbidden to do have become sadly common. In Iraq, we were instructed to spare animals as much as possible; police officers routinely gun down family pets. We were told to be as respectful as possible toward the occupants of the houses we searched and only employed “dynamic entry” when we were likely to face violent resistance; as Radley Balko has documented, dynamic entry and abuse of the inhabitants of searched homes have become routine for American police, even during investigations of nonviolent, victimless crimes. Soldiers manning our checkpoints were trained to use a range of nonlethal options before resorting to lethal force; as we saw on Capitol Hill yesterday, American police officers react first with deadly force.
Police militarization is a hot topic lately, especially in libertarian circles, but American police are beyond anything contemplated by the American military. While abuses certainly occurred in Iraq and elsewhere, our procedures as soldiers in a war zone were designed to avoid violence and protect the lives of the Iraqis, and we understood that that meant accepting some risk ourselves as soldiers. American police today appear unwilling to accept any risk whatsoever and seem willing to kill anyone and anything that could possibly be seen as a threat; according to the chief of the D.C. police, Cathy Lanier, these police officers “did exactly what they were supposed to do.”
While Lanier’s statement may be true in terms of police policy, we cannot accept those policies. Deadly force cannot be the first and last choice for dealing with any potential threat, and police officers must be trained to strive always to protect the lives of citizens, especially of suspects. Policing is a dangerous job, but as someone who has held another dangerous job, I must say that our American police need to understand and accept the risks they take when they accept the badge and understand that they are there to protect others before themselves.
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