Editor’s note: This commentary is by Ron Jacobs, a library worker and writer whose most recent books are “Daydream Sunset: 60s Counterculture in the 70s,” and “Can We Escape the Eternal Flame?” He lives in Winooski.
Police killings of unarmed individuals are murders. Pretending otherwise is, at its core, giving police an unrestricted license to kill whomever and whenever they want. Tangentially, providing such a license seems like it would attract those who desire to have a license to kill to the profession. I like to think the latter possibility is not the intention of those who hire and defend law enforcement employees. If police truly are here to protect and serve the community and all those they encounter are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, then there is absolutely no reason unarmed civilians should be killed by law enforcement, much less in the numbers they are killed in the United States.
Very recently, a young unarmed man was killed by a Franklin County sheriff’s deputy near the Winooski community center. I won’t pretend the dead man was without his faults. He had had run-ins with the law before and was known to Winooski officers. However, that alone is not a reason to kill him. Heck, when I was in my 20s in the 1970s, I had a number of run-ins with the police, including a couple of times when they took me in because I “looked like a suspect.” In other words, my hair was long, I was wearing jeans and a flannel shirt, and I had been arrested for smoking marijuana before. I looked like a hundred other young men in the neighborhood I was arrested in. I ran a couple of times but was never shot or even shot at. My point in relating my experience is simple: I believe that today’s police are trigger happy and do not care about the rights of those they are pursuing.
In regards to the killing of Jesse Breshaw in Winooski by the Franklin County deputy, I have a couple specific questions. The first is:
• Why was the Franklin County sheriff even there?
• Why was he allowed to join the pursuit if he is?
More importantly, why was he the one who killed Breshaw, especially since he was out of his jurisdiction?
• Was there a previous history between Breshaw and Deputy Palmier, perhaps from Palmier’s time on the Winooski force?
In regards to the broader question of why do law enforcement personnel kill so many unarmed people, my questions are more general.
• Why are they trained to shoot to kill?
• What in their training makes them so trigger-happy?
Another, more existential question regarding the tendency of police to shoot first and ask questions later (or never, if they can get away with it) is this:
The fact that law enforcement does not appear to see suspects as either having the right to life or the right to a trial says to me that they are not police officers, but military forces trained to kill anything that moves.
What makes them see every individual who fits one of the profiles they are obviously taught as criminal? Secondly, why do they believe their perception means they can murder that person, even though they have not been fired at or otherwise attacked?
It seems to me that law enforcement should be taught that even those whom they believe to be criminally involved have rights that should be respected. Besides the basic human right to life, one of those other rights is the right to be afforded a trial. When police murder suspects, at the least they deprive those suspects of those human and civil rights. The fact that law enforcement does not appear to see suspects as either having the right to life or the right to a trial says to me that they are not police officers, but military forces trained to kill anything that moves. The fact that so many police have served in combat zones where they could kill anything that moved is something that needs to be looked at when hiring new recruits. The fact that police act this way in their own nation and community is indicative of a police state.
That’s not what we signed up for.