What Would Possess This Police Officer to Fire on a Minivan Filled With Kids?

His behavior is being investigated. His superiors should come under greater scrutiny too.
Ken Lund/Flickr

Some time ago, a story made the rounds about the total number of bullets fired by German police in 2011: just 85 total bullets. As The Wire noted, "in the U.S., where the population is little less than four times the size of Germany's, well, we can get to 85 in just one sitting, thank you very much. 84 shots fired at one murder suspect in Harlem, another 90 shot at one fleeing unarmed man in Los Angeles."

It may be that American police officers have good reason to deploy lethal force at higher rates than our European friends. Still, there are plenty of instances when U.S. police are indefensibly trigger happy, like the multiple instances of officers firing on totally innocent people during the protracted manhunt for Christopher Dorner... and a new story in which a New Mexico state trooper fired on a minivan filled with kids.

The mother was pulled over for going 71 mph in a 55 mph zone:

The mother clearly behaved badly in this traffic stop, escalating the situation and putting the officer who pulled her over in a very difficult position. I don't know enough about police training and procedures to know whether he at first acquitted himself well. I was inclined to cut him some slack given the circumstances, and to cut some slack to the officers who next arrived on the scene as well. Then? The officer who bashed out the window with his night stick made what is at least a highly questionable decision, while the act of firing a weapon–it was indefensible. What would justify firing bullets toward the back of a minivan with 5 kids inside of it? Would you want that officer patrolling your home state?

Two of the police officers are now under investigation. And that just isn't enough anymore.

Highly questionable resort to firearms happens frequently enough in America that cases like this should automatically trigger scrutiny of higher ups too. Sometimes, individual officers will bear the bulk of the blame, but higher-ups in police departments need to know that the culture they've presided over will come under suspicion when their subordinates put innocent members of the public in needless danger. Have they adequately trained their forces? Has excessive force resulted in proper discipline in the past? When higher-ups know that their necks are on the line too, I predict that America will see fewer instances of excessive force. Until then, it's clear that, whatever the outcome in this latest incident, our nation has a problem that goes beyond individual police officers.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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