Community Struggles to Understand Itself in the Wake of Milton Hall Shooting

    icon Sep 27, 2012
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“It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”    -Mark Twain.
Milton Hall died in a hail of police gunfire in July. Officers surrounded him with guns drawn and a police dog out front ready to attack him. He taunted the police to let the dogs attack him, and adopted a fighting stance as they barked clear and specific orders: “Drop the knife.” 44 shots were fired at him after he started to move.
We don't really know what was said, and we don't really know what was going in Milton's head, or in the heads of the 6 officers who shot, or the head of the canine officer who did not release the dog that could have disarmed Milton Hall without killing him. We don't know if Milton Hall committed “suicide by cop.” We don't know why the police obliged him by killing him rather than disarming him.
All we really know is that something very scary and very wrong has happened in our community, and that after 10 weeks the information that our government has released so far has left us ignorant of essential facts, and wondering if our government in still under our control. The official process appears to have gotten in the way of the truth; providing excuses for nondisclosure, and there may be no light at the end of the tunnel. Despite the government resolution that none of the shooters will be charged, or even fired, the threat of litigation makes it unlikely that the public will hear the facts in the near future.
Milton Hall's killing has sparked strong predictable reactions from concerned citizens and from advocacy groups with agendas of their own to advance. By making cock-sure statements, some risk losing their own credibility when all the evidence does come out.  In the meantime, most of us remain in a silent state of shock. All involved would do well to find within themselves the patience and empathy to address this tragedy with the dignity it demands. After all, patience and empathy would have avoided this tragedy in the first place. Restraint is the essence of self-governance.
I have heard the shooting described as racist. We don't really know whether race was a factor, or whether the fact that Milton Hall was black, and the shooters white, is a correlation without causation. I am not black, so I certainly cannot question why some black persons might angrily assume that race was at least a subconscious factor in the split second decision to shoot or wait.
But no one really knows. I doubt even the individual shooters even know for sure, as they lie awake at night wondering why the dog handler did not feel sufficiently threatened to release the dog to disarm Milton, and why they followed the lead of whomever took the first shot. Would they have fired on a white vagrant armed with a knife in the same situation? There is a strong case to be made that they would have shot a white man just as dead as they shot Milton Hall; but if you already know, for sure, that race was the reason for the shooting, then you may have more in common with the shooters than you care to admit.
I have heard that the shooting was necessary; that Milton Hall was a bad and dangerous person, who made himself a victim and deserved what he got. I have never had to face a hostile person armed with a knife, so I don't know for sure what I would have done if I were a cop. However, numerous 'anonymous' newspaper readers have made online comments that are so harsh and disrespectful of the dead that one wonders whether they are even human at all.
The officers made a split second decision, and they have to live with that. You who would discount Milton Hall's life have had months to ponder the incident, and if watching the shooting videos does not disgust you, and make you demand better of your government, then you may have more in common with Milton Hall than you care to admit.
Police killings are nothing new, nor are the provocations police endure from the so-called “criminal element.” What our community needs to do is embrace our own fallibility as human beings, and try to understand why we so quickly turn to hate and violence in the face of misunderstanding. Fear drives good people to do horrible things to each other. Fear explains Milton Hall's confrontational attitude toward the police, for he clearly started it. Fear explains their use of excessive force, for they clearly had a non-lethal alternative. Fear explains the way each of us has reacted to this horrific incident.
Life is for the living. Milton Hall has gone to a better place, but the living remain here trying to make our own community a better and more peaceful place to live. That means each of us must examine our own attitudes and try to be more thoughtful, patient, and understanding.
However, the community must make a collective assessment. We must examine our governmental institutions lest we fall into lethargy and get the government we deserve. Government institutions, like the Saginaw Police Department, are not humans and so deserve less, not more, chance than Milton Hall received.
So, as a community, we must face the paradox of government: Can government at once be empowered and constrained? In our social contract, We The People give government a legal monopoly on violence. We delegate justice to the “protective state”, and for the sake of law and order we authorize our delegates - the police and the criminal justice system - to act on our behalf, even to the point of using deadly force.
The same authority that empowers government for our benefit is a double-edged sword that can kick back in our faces. Governmental authority, theoretically given to institutions, is ultimately manifested in the imperfect human beings who we appoint officials of those institutions. Thus, the protective state takes on a life of its own, and can become a predatory state when the human beings who control the institutions of government develop self-interested motivations, such as the desire to compete with other governmental institutions for budgets, turf, power, and respect.
This explains why the amorphous “War on Drugs”, may have played a role in the death of Milton Hall. If you can't see personal blame in the Milton Hall video, you at least must recognize the distinctly “military” nature of the police response. In decades past, police wore 38 caliber pistols, and understood their function as keepers of the peace; to “protect and serve.” The main effect of the “War on Drugs” has been to “militarize” police departments around America, changing their mission from peacekeeping to one that more closely resembles the military goal of “engaging and destroying the enemy in close combat,” without getting killed.
Federal grants, budgets, promotions, and personal advancement have all become linked to aggressive policing tactics in the “War on Drugs.” At the same time, the black market caused by drug prohibition has created a new and heavily armed class of wealthy boot-leggers we call drug dealers. The overabundance of military surplus weaponry gives police a tactical advantage against criminals, but weaponry comes with instructions in tactical use of weapons, and killing the enemy. SWAT teams and task forces are trained to kill, and the result has been predictable increased killing.
Today's police are trained to react exactly the way they reacted to Milton Hall. They would not risk being killed or injured by Hall, and would not even risk injury to their police dog (their “equipment”) to stop the threat. They carry automatic weapons, and they use those weapons of deadly force with almost unfettered discretion, as has been the case with Milton Hall.
It is precisely the unwillingness to call police departments to account for misconduct that has desensitized police to the high value of the lives of others. For the fear of being victimized by criminals, we have placed too much power in the hands of the police, who can hardly be expected to police themselves from within.
What we need in general is a more comprehensive, accessible, open, and meaningful review of systems that can deter bad police behavior and produce data. These systems must instill confidence in the community that police are on everyone's side. Police must stop characterizing the rest of us as “civilians,” for that reinforces a detachment from the community at large.
In particular, what Saginaw needs is not more money, or more officers, or even more authority; what Saginaw needs is to take policing in another direction. Cross training of police and firefighters in a unified “public safety” department would help reinstill the service aspects of policing.
That is a real possibility in the short term.
However, nothing will change the fact that the Police Chief is an employee of the City Manager, not the council. The City Manager is never directly accountable to the people so neither is the Police Chief accountable to the people.
The county Sheriff on the other hand is elected by the citizens; and this fact alone makes countywide policing a preferred alternative to having a dozen independent departments in our county. Only voter accountability (the consent of the people) can re-instill confidence of the public, and reduce the fear of bad police. 
The City of Saginaw has received a cost estimate from the county Sheriff, and so has been given a rare opportunity to begin the long arduous process of moving to county-wide policing, under the county Sheriff, with more boots on the ground and less taxpayer expense. This alternative should be pursued with vigor, so that Saginaw can begin to move forward with a sense of mission and justice.
As for the City Police department, as an institution the City Police department is doomed. It must be eliminated as an institution of government. It is unreliable and unsafe for our city. I can understand the official decision to resolve doubts in favor of individuals who shot Milton Hall. A long trial and likely jury acquittal (based on liberal self defense jury instructions) would have destroyed the lives of human beings and done nothing to heal our city.
A public hanging of the whole institution of the City Police department, if it were replaced with a better cheaper alternative, would have the opposite effect.

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