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Speakers tell personal stories about militarized police forces

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At the beginning of the annual meeting event “Peace Officer: How Militarization of Law Enforcement Has Affected Peace Officers and the Communities They Serve,” San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi asked how many people in the audience are afraid of police officers.

“Not a lot,” he observed. “You may be afraid after this.”

Indeed, the event, presented by the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, gave the audience a sobering look at how police use of military tactics and equipment can lead to unnecessary loss of life.

Speakers Rashidah Grinage of the Coalition for Police Accountability in Oakland, California, and William “Dub” Lawrence, former sheriff of Davis County, Utah, both told stories about how they lost family members in police confrontations that didn’t have to become violent.

Moderator Cathleen Yonahara, vice chair of the section’s Civil Rights and Equal Opportunity Committee, explained that the program was inspired by a 2015 documentary, Peace Officer, which looks at the militarization of American police forces through Lawrence’s own experience. As sheriff of a county outside of Salt Lake City in the late 1970s, Lawrence founded a SWAT team that later killed his son-in-law.

Lawrence explained that his intent was to deploy the team only to neutralize violent situations. Lawrence thought he could talk his son-in-law out of the police confrontation—but by then, he was out of office, and officers told him to move away from the scene. In the end, he said, his son-in-law was “mutilated” by all of the shooting.

Lawrence now is an advocate for ending qualified immunity for police officers. He noted that part of the teachings of his Mormon faith is that all people, when given some authority, “will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.”

A 2014 report from the American Civil Liberties Union, War Comes Home, found that of more than 800 SWAT deployments between 2011 and 2012, 62 percent were solely to search for drugs. That report also found that SWAT teams were deployed against people of color disproportionately; 42 percent of targets were African-American, and 12 percent were Latino.

This might not be conscious, Adachi said, but could be a result of implicit bias—the subconscious belief that people of color are more dangerous.

Grinage said militarization can be brought back to the issue of who makes decisions and who controls law enforcement. Regardless of public opinion, she said, officers won’t be held accountable if powerful police unions have the ear of public officials who make the decisions.

“The reality is that if all that happens to you is you get a two-week or six-week paid vacation while you are under investigation, all the while confident that your action will be deemed justified, there’s no incentive to change the behavior,” she said.

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