by George Wolfe

George Wolfe

George Wolfe

A few months ago I was driving north on Wheeling Avenue in Muncie to a meeting I had scheduled with an author friend at the Starbucks on McGalliard. As I approached the traffic light at Wheeling and McGalliard, I realized I had forgotten a pen to take notes with, so I began thinking where I could purchase one on my way to the meeting. The Speedway convenience store on the corner just before the turn onto McGalliard came to mind, so I turned right into the store parking lot.

Then I had second thoughts and realized the Walgreens drug store further east would be more likely to carry what I needed. So in the interest of saving time I drove through the Speedway parking lot, re-entered McGalliard and proceeded eastward. Several blocks later I turned left onto North Walnut Street as I prepared to enter the Walgreen’s parking lot. Suddenly I noticed a patrol car behind me with its lights blinking. Immediately I pulled over to the curb.

As the officer approached my car, he asked if I have any weapons that could hurt him. After I said “no,” he asked to see my license and registration, then inquired why I entered the Speedway parking lot only to exit it immediately onto McGalliard, as if to skirt the traffic light. I was somewhat flustered with the blinking lights behind me, by getting stopped, and also because I was running late. I took a deep breath to settle myself down and explained about needing to buy the pen. He looked at my identification and then let me go.

This was an awkward encounter for both me and the officer, but you can imagine how much more tense I would have been if I were Hispanic or middle Eastern and did not speak English well. My reason for driving as I did was innocent, but my explanation could have aroused suspicion. It certainly was helpful for me to be white and a native English speaking U.S. citizen. Fortunately, the officer who stopped me in Muncie was experienced and very professional.

When I see the news reports of African-American citizens in Ferguson, Missouri and other communities claiming local officers subject them to discriminatory treatment and profiling, I can understand. This all boils down to police hiring and training, and the scathing report of the Ferguson police by the U.S. Justice Department exposes the depth of the problem.

Police hiring and training must be changed. There is no excuse for employing officers who are racist as revealed in Ferguson by email messages and other documents. And it is difficult to understand why an officer should need to shoot an unarmed man six or seven times as was the case with Michael Brown.

There is also the case where an African-American male, holding a knife and showing signs of mental illness, was shot multiple times by two officers who were clearly at a safe distance and could have remained so. They had ample opportunity to wound the suspect or talk him into surrendering his weapon. At least the officers could have made that effort since, as shown by the video, they were at least 15 yards from the man and not in immediate life-threatening danger.

Such cases can’t help evoke memories of the death of Ball State student Michael McKinney who was intoxicated, unarmed and shot four times by an rookie police officer who had not finished his training.

We must work to prevent such tragedies by hiring officers who are properly trained in communication skills and in the use of nonlethal force (e.g., mace, stun guns, shooting to wound) against individuals who are unarmed.

George Wolfe is Professor Emeritus at Ball State University and former Director and Coordinator of Outreach Programs for the Ball State University Center for Peace and Conflict Studies. He also chairs the Muncie Interfaith Fellowship, is a trained mediator, and is the author of The Spiritual Power of Nonviolence: Interfaith Understanding for a Future Without War.

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