Professor Kami Chavis discusses relationship between citizens and police in light of recent shootings on American Constitution Society’s blog

Photo of Wake Forest Law School Professor Kami Chavis

Professor of Law and Director of the Criminal Justice Program Kami Chavis

Professor Kami Chavis, director of the law school’s Criminal Justice Program and associate dean for research and public engagement, is quoted in the following article, “Seeking Alternatives to the Deadly Use of Force,” published on American Constitution Society’s blog on Sept. 27, 2016.

As with so many fatal police shootings that have gripped the nation’s attention in recent years, there is much we do not know and may never know, about the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte and Terence Crutcher in Tulsa.

Videos from at least some sources have been released in each case, but leave critical questions unanswered and as with most such videos, what is shown is subject to interpretation.  What we do know is that Betty Shelby, the Tulsa police officer who fatally shot Crutcher, is facing first-degree manslaughter charges. And though the investigation into Crutcher’s death continues, Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney has said that the officer who fatally shot him, Brentley Vinson, was “absolutely not being charged by me at this point.”

Almost regardless of what facts may come to light in each case, there is a sense among many that these deaths were avoidable. Explicit policing policies, such as stop-and-frisk and overly aggressive traffic enforcement, fall more heavily on communities of color and increase a person of color’s chances of being forced to interact with law enforcement. Tracey Meares, a professor of law at Yale, who is among the speakers tomorrow on a conference call ACS is hosting on police use of force, asserts that “[t]here is evidence strongly indicating that policing in that way creates distrust between members of the community who are often disproportionately stopped this way and the police, in a way that is actually inimical to the goals of crime control.” In addition, implicit bias, which the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing acknowledged “is a widespread [problem] that arises from history, from culture and from racial inequalities that still pervade our society and are especially salient in the context of criminal justice,” can lead police to perceive a Black person as more dangerous than they would a white person in a similar situation. When you combine over-policing and implicit bias, along with other factors, they create a fatal recipe that increases the chance that police will use force and often lethal force, in circumstances that could have been resolved through de-escalation strategies. This, in turn, has contributed to the deaths of 305 Black people in 2015 and 195 deaths already this year at the hands of police—more than twice the rate of white deaths, per capita.

Professor Kami Chavis, a professor of law at Wake Forest University, who will also speak on the ACS call tomorrow, has observed  that, “People are angry and not trusting the police. They do not want to partner with police and prosecutors. We cannot deny anymore the racial dimension of what is happening. We [are] going to have to come to grips with this as a country.”

This anger stems from both the frequency with which communities of color are subject to police force and the infrequency with which such force, even when seemingly unjustifiable, is subject to criminal prosecution or even civil liability. There is a sense within the communities affected by this violence and among those allied with those communities, that the list of victims for whom justice has been denied—Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, John Crawford—will grow unabated.

For that reason, we should seriously consider whether the constitutional  standards and department policies to which police are held in such cases do too little to encourage officers to seek alternatives to deadly force. For example, the Supreme Court has held that a police officer may use deadly force when he or she reasonably believes that his or her life or the life of another is in danger. The result is that courts and juries may too often give almost implausibly generous interpretations of what is “reasonable” in order to find in favor of the police. And while it is true that it would be a long and difficult road to change the constitutional standards to which police are held, states and individual police departments remain free to hold their police officers to higher standards and to provide them the tools and training to more frequently utilize de-escalation technique rather than rely on use of force.