In the wake of grand jury decisions to not indict two police officers, who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner, persistent protests erupted across the United States. These led to senseless attacks against police officers, including two New York City cops, killed as they sat in their patrol car. Unfortunately, such reprehensible, inexcusable shootings were predictable—and will continue, unless timely, pragmatic action is taken.
Activists, media analysts and politicians have focused on myriad “causes” for the unrest—race-based unfairness, a perceived pro-police bias within the judiciary, mendacious cops, legal system deficiencies, and other issues—to explain the recent backlash against an epidemic of citizen fatalities at the hands of police officers.
Overshadowed by rightful outrage and angst that followed the insane execution of Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in New York is an equally alarming fact: In 2014, police officers killed 1,100 people, an average of three every day of the year. That figure contrasts with 126 law enforcement officers killed in 2014, according to an annual report released by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Fifty officers were killed with guns, and 15 of those were via “ambush assaults,” matching a 2012 total. Attacks on cops have been increasing over the past few years, although police work is much safer today than it was in the 1970s.
These statistics should be a loud-and-clear wakeup call for every American. Unless leaders at the federal, state and local levels openly acknowledge that there’s a dark, disturbing correlation between the deaths of 1,100 citizens and a rash of intentional, random attacks on police officers, this nation will be condemned to thousands more heartbreaking funerals in 2015.
Indignant police union leaders’ demands that Congress label attacks on uniformed officers as “hate crimes” have yielded chilly, skeptical receptions. Equally irate American citizens are demanding practical, substantive changes in police policies, practices and training—realistic solutions that hold quick-to-shoot cops accountable, yet protect good, honorable officers, who daily live their oaths to protect and serve.
Worried public officials from the White House to local mayors’ offices and city councils are scrambling to appease angry, fed up, disaffected citizens and embattled police officers, before outright armed rebellion explodes into nationwide chaos. Most public officials fully understand that citizens are fed up with post-shooting patronization: “We’re conducting a thorough investigation to determine exactly what occurred.” “We’ll change policies, procedures and practices to make sure this never happens again.” And the tired granddaddy of all, “We’ll improve officer training.”
On the other side, upstanding, professional police officers are frustrated by protests and repercussions attributed to the misdeeds, questionable shootings, chokings and general abuse committed by their uniformed compatriots. Consequently, the chasm between disheartened cops and exasperated, infuriated citizens continues to widen.
Police officers and taxpayers of all races and creeds, from Los Angeles to New York, must face several inescapable truths: Unless drastic improvements are made, the only elements guaranteed to change will be cops’ annual body count and the number of attacks on police officers. And race isn’t the primary factor driving either police brutality or ambushes on cops. Despite what we’re told by the media, high-profile activists and police unions, many of today’s sworn officers are equal-opportunity abusers and killers. They shoot to kill, without regard for ethnicity or creed.
What can be done to drastically curb police brutality and killing, as well as egregious attacks on police officers, then rebuild trust between citizens and the U.S. law enforcement community, before outrage ignites a shooting war?
Look to the high-integrity field of aviation/aerospace. Long ago, these professionals developed an effective system that has greatly improved air operations safety, based on several key principles:
• Independent investigations of aircraft incidents and fatal accidents.
• Clear identification of root causes, based on full-spectrum investigations, forensic data and analyses conducted by well-trained professionals.
• Follow-up actions by federal regulatory agencies, which capitalize on findings and recommendations made by independent, third-party investigators.
• A rigorous protocol of accountability, ensuring trust is maintained with the flying public and senior military leaders.
• A non-punitive companion system to identify unsafe activities via anonymous reporting, enabling corrections, before accidents occur.
The establishment in 1926 of a congressionally chartered National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to investigate every aircraft accident was a major step toward improving aviation safety. In 1974, the NTSB was designated an independent entity, because “…No federal agency can properly perform such (investigatory) functions, unless it is totally separate and independent from any other…agency of the United States..,” according to the NTSB website.
Currently, there is no law enforcement equivalent to the NTSB. Police departments routinely conduct internal investigations of officer-involved shootings, and just as routinely conclude that their fellow officers were totally justified in shooting a civilian to death.
In the aviation sector, if an airline’s pilots investigated each other’s accidents, and always concluded that their fellow pilots were never at fault, who would willingly climb aboard a commercial air transport? Passengers would have very little faith in a system that ignored mistakes, actively covered up failures to protect its own, and habitually lied about the causes of aircraft disasters. But that is precisely how many law enforcement and judicial organizations operate—and why citizens no longer trust cops and district attorneys to honestly investigate officer-involved fatalities.
Because it’s a dedicated proponent of continuous improvement, the military and civil aviation community recognized the wisdom of preemptively identifying and eliminating unsafe practices, rather than merely fixing problems, after a deadly accident. The non-punitive Aviation Safety and Reporting System (ASRS) was set up to identify threats to safety, by collecting voluntary reports from pilots, air traffic controllers, maintenance technicians and other industry personnel. To ensure anonymity and minimize risks to jobs and careers, ASRS is operated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). When NASA validates a safety issue, based on anonymous reports, it “identifies system deficiencies, and issues alerting messages to persons in a position to correct them,” according to the ASRS charter.
Over the years, the NTSB, backed by ASRS and other proven industry tools, have created the safest air transportation system in the world. Yes, cost-sensitive airlines and pilot, controller and other unions often object and push back, when new regulations or processes are imposed. Still, every airman, manager, controller and mechanic ultimately has faith in the findings and judgment of NTSB investigators.
Law enforcement policies, practices, procedures and training are at least 50 years behind those of the aviation industry. If aviators were killing three people every day of the year, the White House, Congress and American taxpayers would be furious. Why isn’t there similar outrage and intolerance for cops killing more than 1,000 Americans per year?
After a police officer panicked and shot my son to death in 2010, the cop and a multiagency Las Vegas “Cartel of Corruption” followed a well-worn cover-up playbook that calls for disparaging the dead victim and corrupting or manufacturing evidence to ensure badged killers are always exonerated. The U.S. Department of Justice simply reviewed the police department’s self-investigation findings and “decided to not get involved.”
Four and a half years later, though, the national environment is much different. Americans are finally up in arms, demanding that law enforcement stop killing citizens. It’s time for Congress and the White House to listen and act aggressively to implement concrete, meaningful changes. Its time to establish a federal agency charged with independently investigating every officer-involved fatality, then reporting its findings to those who will hold cops accountable.
It’s also time to set up a process emulating the Aviation Safety and Reporting system to give honorable, professional police officers a vehicle for anonymously reporting fellow cops’ crimes, malfeasance and cover-ups, which have destroyed the credibility of all law enforcement agencies and personnel.
Yes, street cops, state patrol officers, and federal agents in dozens of agencies—all backed by politically powerful, single-minded unions—may scream, threaten to strike and fight back aggressively. But it’s time government officials ignore the self-serving cries of unions, race-baiters and those with an agenda, then do the right thing for all their constituents—black, white, brown, yellow and blue-uniformed.
Americans’ patience is exhausted, and both citizens’ and cops’ lives are in danger.
* William B. Scott is a former bureau chief for Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine, a Flight Test Engineer graduate of the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School and author of The Permit, a thriller based on his eldest son’s death.