Analysis of Police 11.08.07

Teen's shooting part of historical police pattern

My Word  11/08/2006   by Alex Scherbatskoy

I am writing in response to a front page article in the Nov. 5 edition entitled “Six Years in the System: A dark journey -- How Chris Burgess ended up shot to death.”

I am a student at Goddard College in Vermont and a Humboldt County resident and property owner. Goddard College has been at the forefront in progressive education for over 100 years, with curriculums focused on social justice, class, and race issues.

My own study includes an extensive exploration of the roots of police violence. The Times-Standard article mentioned above does not in any way explain “how Chris Burgess ended up shot to death,” as the title implies. It does portray the trials and tribulations of Chris' childhood, but these trials and tribulations do not explain the shooting. Neither does the previous Times-Standard article that proclaimed loudly on the front page that Chris was on “meth” when he was killed.

Any educated expert would agree that the shooting of Christopher Burgess is the result of a well-documented, nationwide, systematic pattern of violence that began in 1845 when New York City instituted what is commonly considered the first modern police force (Kristian Williams, 2004, p. 56).

The principal job of these early police was as a patrol to apprehend escaped slaves. In 1996, 20 percent of the American public had direct contact with the police, 471,000 were subject to the use of force, and 373 were killed (U.S. Department of Justice).

A study of the development of modern policing reveals certain characteristics of police conduct before, during and after police shootings. These characteristics are present in the Christopher Burgess shooting to a striking degree. So much so that, as I stand and listen to the police chief explain his position, I imagine that I could be listening to testimony regarding any of the once-daily deaths that can be attributed to police.

The most notable characteristics have to do with the way that the EPD justifies deadly use of force: By claiming self-defense, by blaming the victim, and by portraying Terry Liles as a hero risking his life for the public safety. Research shows us, however, that the likelihood of a death increases drastically when police arrive on the scene.

Moreover, the death is 4.75 times as likely to be that of the civilian rather than that of the police officer. This put Chris in a far more dangerous position than Terry Liles.

If Chris Durant is going to claim to be able to explain “how Chris Burgess ended up shot to death,” then he should do his research before publication, because there are thousands of readers of this newspaper that will not do any research whatsoever, and will take Mr. Durant's article at face value.

Chris' death has far more to do with the historical role of police departments than it does with either Chris' or Terry Liles' personal position. A systematic problem needs to be understood that way before a systematic solution can be forthcoming.

Newspapers have historically been complicit in portraying to the public a “script” of the incident that shapes public perception in a highly predictable way. This version of the incident is shaped out of the rhetoric commonly distributed by the police department, out of a failure to see the incident as anything but an isolated event, and from a failure to investigate beyond a level that might threaten or expose a bureaucratic system that discounts the importance of a human life.

The only way that the fact that Chris had a hard childhood or was on “meth” explains the shooting was to identify him as part of a minority group that has been victimized by the police since their creation in 1845. This community has a choice: It can let this shooting go as another casualty, or it can make the changes necessary to break the pattern.

Alex Scherbatskoy is from Manila, Calif.