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CJCCJ/Volume 64.1 (2022)

A Socio-Criminological Analysis of the HIV Epidemic

By David Baker
Lanham, MD: Lexington Books. 2021.

In Police-Related Deaths in the United States, David Baker interviews the family members of United States (US) civilians that American police officers have killed. Baker examines seven police-related deaths that are related to ethnic minority groups, mentally impaired and transgender people. With these case studies, Baker underlines that the US criminal justice and the policing system attempt to retain public confidence by circumventing investigations and accountability of police-related deaths, resulting in the continuation of lethal force. These contexts and other thematic examples illustrate that policing practices corrodes American society’s core fabric: freedom, liberty, and rights.

The book is divided into eight chapters, which contain an introduction and conclusion. In the initial chapter, Baker reports over 1,000 civilian deaths from US police officers in 2015 and 2016, meaning an estimated three civilians were killed each day (p. xvi). However, communicating police-related deaths to other federal states is difficult, but a system to provide accurate data still does not exist. Baker posits that some lives matter and others do not, which contradicts the US collective dream that comprises principles of freedom, democracy, and justice.

The excerpt of 21-year-old Danielle Willard, who was shot dead by two armed police officers to discover a small bag of heroin, unravelled questions on police malpractice and unethical investigations (p. xiv). More white people are killed by US cops, meaning that lethal encounters result in death irrespective of race, and court proceedings and liability for US officers are very unlikely (p. xviii). Police-related deaths are often sympathetic excuses made by police officers, amounting “tragic errors” such as firing under pressure or shooting violent, dangerous, mentally unstable or drug users. Society trusts our law enforcement, so it is usually acceptable. Seeing a police officer in a criminal court disturbs the trust of order, so few officers are placed there. Does society need to know the specific numbers of police-related deaths? This would undoubtedly undermine public confidence in law enforcement, justice, democracy and freedom. Was it a valid reason to shoot Willard for a small bag of heroin? Would it be acceptable to shoot a rapist or someone who has failed to pay a bribe? Every outcome relates to death (p. xx), so there are challenges that construct reality. There is a good use of social media to span beyond the US to raise more awareness of police-related deaths, as evident with the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement to abolish the police (pp. xx, xxii). Despite such pressure, uprisings and protests, police-related deaths are mostly normalized.

Baker then covers the role of the police, focusing on crime, crime prevention and social issues ensuring that offenders are brought to investigation and justice after crimes have been committed, but the central aspect is to preserve order (p. xxi). The US contains many small police departments within close proximities and thus struggles to share information. Deaths are a result of the systems and structures within policing (p. xxvii). The police may be constructed more as a warrior than a guardian, and the police are unique with powers to use force against citizens. Still, the difficulty rests on the counted deaths and accountability.

Chapter 1 provides a case study of John T. Williams, a 50-year-old partially deaf Native American woodcarver. Williams was shot dead by a Seattle Police Department Officer, Ian Birk, in 2010. Williams was walking and holding a three-inch-bladed knife while carving wood but did not hear Birk instructing him to put the knife down. Williams was shot four times in the back, then handcuffed once deceased (p. 17). His family was then antagonized with a smear campaign for a violent Indian retaliation. In 2011, an inquest judged the shooting of Williams as unjustifiable, which contravened 17 policies of the Seattle Police Department. Birk resigned but faced no charges, and $1.25 US million was paid as a civil settlement to avoid criminal court proceedings (p. 2). The incarceration rate of Native Americans is double that of white citizens and the former are proportionally most likely to be killed by US police officers than other ethnic counterparts (pp. 9–10).

Two-thirds of families interviewed by Baker received financial settlements; one-third were shot in the back and one-quarter were handcuffed after their deaths (p. 3). This disseminates the “comply or die” message because Williams was not violent or offending, but he did not comply with Birk’s order (p. 3). US citizens are aware of such rules and lethal coercion, meaning that the police have the power to make people obey them (p. 4). Ambiguity arises when an officer feels fear for their safety, the safety of citizens and what constitutes the legitimate use of force (p. 4). Split-second syndrome decisions and buying time are in police training. Still, Baker contends that there is no way the split-second decision was needed when shooting Williams because there were many alternatives (pp. 5–6). There are dangers when avoiding taking risks, cynicism with us against them, a sense of mission and machoism that drive police occupational culture (Robert Reiner, 2010, The Politics of the Police, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press). Therefore, police officers do not follow split-second decision-making when using lethal force as a last resort due to discretion (p. 7).

Baker then covers gun culture, media representations and obtaining firearms in the US (pp. 10–11). The US police have been paramilitarized from the 1990s war on drugs and post-9/11 war on terror, which increased Special Weapons and Tactics teams and police departments to attain more advanced weaponry (pp. 12–15). This, too, is evident with training police the training of police forces by the US overseas.  US forces trained the Iraqi and Afghan police forces to fight extremism and the Taliban directly (Danny Singh, 2020, Investigating Corruption in the Afghan Police Force: Instability and Insecurity in Post-Conflict Societies (Bristol: Policy Press, pp. 61–66, 71)).

Chapter 2 narrates Nathaniel H. Pickett II, a mentally impaired 29-year-old man, in Barstow, California. Pickett was shot two times by Deputy Kyle Woods. Woods lied that Pickett was violent towards him when walking home from a local store on November 19, 2015 (p. 19). This was upheld in court with a jury deciding on CCTV footage that showed Pickett’s body being beaten with fists and boots, and his family was awarded $33.5 million (p. 20). However, Woods returned to work and was involved in another shooting in 2018 and instructed firing range to recruits on using weapons (p. 20). Likewise, Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes 46 seconds while Floyd pleaded that he could not breathe (p. 21). These black men held no weapons, committed no serious offence but were subjected to “extra-legal force” (p. 22).

Chapter 3 covers the forceful restraint of transgender Kayla Moore who suffered from mental health issues. Moore was pushed “face-down on a mattress in her own home,” gendered jokes were made, her genitalia was exposed, and she was not resuscitated – debatably due to her gender identity (pp. 39–40). Chapter 4 is on Daniel Ficker, a white, 27-year-old father of two. On July 3, 2011, two police officers were outside Ficker’s home, including off-duty David Mindek of Cleveland Police, rather than the City of Parma Police Department, on suspicion of stealing jewellery belonging to Mindek’s wife. Ficker denied the allegation and was dragged towards the cruiser, beaten and shot dead (p. 57). After an investigation, the shooting was judged as justifiable, with both officers returning to work. Eventually, Ficker’s family settled a civil lawsuit for $2.25 million (pp. 58–59).

Chapter 5 covers Jonathen Santella, a 17-year-old Hispanic Houston high school student. Santella was shot twice in November 2013 by an ordinarily clothed off-duty cop, Rey Garza, whilst he and his friend feared from Garza’s gun banging on the car window, reversed (pp. 75–76). Garza was not indicted, and grand jury proceedings occurred privately without Santella’s family members because it was unknown in Harris County. Garza testified that Santella did not initiate any threatening behaviour towards him but opened fire for self-protection once he reversed towards him (p. 76).

Chapter 6 engages with James Paschal Jr., who witnessed his father, a black 30-year-old man, being shot four times in the chest by a police officer. Paschal Jr. was shot ten times by an officer due to an argument with his girlfriend (p. 93). The police department and the press used Paschal Jr.’s past jail-terms. Officers rearranged his arm to be in his waistband so as to look like he was reaching for a weapon and thus, like his father’s killing, was justified by the District Attorney (p. 94). In the aftermath, Paschal Jr.’s mother – an interviewee – was wrestled to the snow, pulled over and harassed by police officers in the area. All participants claimed that they could not sleep or eat properly for years after US police officers killed their loved ones (pp. 95–97). Little has been done to address such issues.

In conclusion, Baker convincingly argues that the US police killing civilians has become normal, deaths are not counted because some lives do not matter. Hence, the police serving and protecting the equality of citizens is merely a social construct. This book will be of particular interest to criminology, policing students, scholars, and criminal justice practitioners. Although the book covers police-related deaths in America, this issue is not unique to the US and can be generalizable on how the police are depicted elsewhere to understand the constructed role of policing fully.


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