By: Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.
A recent news story about a police shooting reported by the Des Moines Register tells a tragic story which warrants some attention and a little thought. According to a newspaper account James Comstack, the father of a 19-year-old boy named Tyler, had a disagreement with his son over buying him a pack of cigarettes. When the father refused to buy the cigarettes, Tyler took his father’s pick-up truck and drove off. James, deciding to teach his son a lesson, called the police and reported the truck stolen. Clearly a poor choice since later Ames, Iowa police officer Adam McPherson spotted the truck and gave pursuit onto the ISU campus. When Tyler finally stopped the truck, he refused to turn off the engine as directed by the officer. In response, McPherson unleashed six shots into the vehicle, two striking and killing the young man. The paper reported Tyler’s father saying, “He took off with my truck. I call the police, and they kill him,”… “It was over a damn pack of cigarettes…. And I lose my son for that.”
While this report will surely be dismissed by many as anecdotal of police violence and claims will be made about Tyler’s dangerous actions, his previous disorderly conduct, perhaps even his troubled past; the situation is far more illustrative and complex than a father’s refusal to buy his son a package of cigarettes and a single police officer’s stupidity. Lesser attention will be given to the officer’s decision to engage in a pursuit on a college campus, his failure to terminate the pursuit, or his decision to unleash six rounds on an unarmed kid. This, however, is not the whole story because individual police actions are carried out in a social and political context where police have been encouraged to use violence.
Many, including my colleagues and myself, have empirically documented the rise in the militarization of the American police institution (Kraska and Kappeler, 1997). This change in police began with the proliferation of isolated use of force tactical units, like SWAT teams, in the 1970s but has now spread to the everyday policing practice. The potential spread of police violence from tactical teams to mainstream policing was one of our initial concerns when we conducted the study nearly 20 years ago—violence would spread into the rank and file of the police and be normalized in police practice. Police now, perhaps more than ever, use both organized and disorganized violence far too often as a first choice for problem solving. Refuse to follow a verbal command, police will Taze you; refuse to remain still after you’re Tazed, police will beat you; refuse to turn off your car, police will shoot you. In far too many cases police are resorting to violence where simply retreating and regrouping or other less violent alternatives would have been more than sufficient.
Despite the fact that violent crime rates (Kappeler and Potter, 2005) and the killing of American police officers have both declined dramatically over the past 40 years (Kappeler, Alpert and Sluder, 1998) and policing is clearly less dangerous than ever, police seem less hesitant today to use force in relatively minor situations, sometimes with lethal consequences. Given the police propensity for violence, one wonders why anyone would call the police in the first place. In a state where the police have been empowered to use and rationalize away their use of violence against the very people they are charged with protecting, perhaps the “don’t snitch” movement had it right. Calling the police can have lethal consequences.
Kappeler, V. E., Sluder, R. D., and Alpert, G. P. (1998). Forces of Deviance: Understanding the Dark Side of Policing (2nd Ed.). Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press.
Kappeler, V. E., and Potter, G. W. (2005). The Mythology of Crime and Criminal Justice (4th Ed.). Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press.
Kraska, P. B., and Kappeler, V. E. (1997). “Militarizing American Police: The Rise and Normalization of Paramilitary Units.” Social Problems, 44(1): 1-18.
Krogstad, J. M. (2013). “Exclusive interview: In ISU case, police actions baffles family.” The Des Moines Register, November 6, 2013.