the least of these

The other day, someone found out I was a vet and asked me what I thought of the scene in American Sniper where Bradley Cooper has to decide whether to shoot a mother and child who might be suicide bombers. The spotter in that scene warns Cooper that if he’s wrong, he’ll be prosecuted for war crimes. My interlocutor asked me what I thought of that. I said I was generally pretty willing to extend soldiers at war the benefit of the doubt — not that they would always do right, but that they would make the same mistakes (including moral mistakes) that anyone would make in a chaotic, threatening situation. Which, in my opinion, was a good reason not to send people to war.

I can’t find an embeddable YouTube video of Sunday’s police shooting of a homeless man in downtown Los Angeles, but if you want to watch it, you can see it here (another angle here). I’ve watched it half a dozen times, and I still can’t tell what happened at the moment the man was shot. But I can tell you that thinking this story starts when that video starts, when the police are already wrestling with the man, and trying to determine what’s right and wrong in that moment, is a fool’s errand. A story like this starts years earlier and at a much wider scope. It’s the story of a society that doesn’t know how to care for its most vulnerable.

58,000, or something approaching 1%, of the citizens of America’s second-largest city are homeless at any one time — and some 190,000 over the course of a given year. The number appears to be to have grown again in recent years despite concentrated efforts to bring it down.) Around 20% are veterans. The United Way says that 6,000 are children, though the L.A. school system claims to serve some 13,000.

Within that general homeless population, there are people living under more difficult conditions still. 42% of the homeless at any given time are “chronically homeless,” and over half that number have three or more disabilities, including mental illness. About 1/3 of homeless citizens of Los Angeles have substance abuse problems. And this is to say nothing of being unusually subject to crime, including targeted violence.

There is hope on some of these fronts; a recent lawsuit will likely open up quite a bit of housing for homeless veterans on the VA campus here. Nonetheless, we have a long way to go, and nobody fully understands how to solve these problems.

I don’t know what happened last Sunday. Apparently the man the police shot was mentally ill (he had vanished from the federal probation system a few months earlier). I don’t know if there’s something the police could have done differently — perhaps figured out a way to engage the man more gradually or backed away once he got agitated. I didn’t see, in the videos, a clear point where that could have happened in a way that was safe for everyone.

But look at the larger picture — this kind of thing is going to happen. You can’t expect the people you employ to do violence on behalf of the state to also be skilled social workers or psychotherapists. (Police a little more than soldiers, maybe — but only a little.) We can’t abandon people who are by definition incapable of helping themselves, hire police to break up their camps or to enforce sleeping bans and loitering laws or to prevent people from bathing, and expect that it’s all going to sort itself out peacefully. It’s not. There are going to be confrontations, and both the police and the homeless are (for different reasons) primed for danger, so those confrontations are not always going to fizzle out or be de-escalated. The best of us would fail under those circumstances, and perhaps more than a lot of cops do.

The point is not to excuse cops who do bad things. It is to say that looking at the final decision of an officer to use force is in many cases really focusing on the least significant factor leading up to someone’s injury or death.

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