Definition of justice
1 a: the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial
adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments
// meting out justice
// social justice
especially: a judge of an appellate court or court of last resort (as a supreme court)
// a supreme court justice
—used as a title
// Justice Marshall
c: the administration of law
// a fugitive from justice
especially: the establishment or determination of rights according to the rules of law
// a system of justice
2 a: the quality of being just, impartial, or fair
// questioned the justice of their decision
b (1): the principle or ideal of just dealing or right action
(2): conformity to this principle or ideal : RIGHTEOUSNESS
// the justice of their cause
c: the quality of conforming to law
3: conformity to truth, fact, or reason : CORRECTNESS
// admitted that there was much justice in these observations
Merriam-Webster’s definitions of justice. Seven alphabetic characters, with enormous meaning. Seven letters that carry tremendous weight. Seven marks that often represent something elusive, and often associated more by their antithesis injustice.
Justice and fairness are not equivalent. We often make the error of believing that if everyone is given the same outlay, there is justice. The classic example is a visual depiction of three baseball fans viewing a game from behind a wooden fence. None of them can see over the fence, so all three are given a box to stand on, boxes of equal height. All three step onto the boxes, but only one fan can now see over the top of the fence – the fans are all different heights, so only the tallest one is helped by the box. The other two are still not tall enough to see over the fence. The equitable solution is to give all three boxes to compensate for their disadvantage, but the boxes are of variable height. The tales fan gets a box of minimal height, the shortest gets a box of greater height. Each box is tailored to meet the goals of the distribution, so they are not the same boxes but fairness is measured by the achievement of the goal, which is to see over the top of the fence.
Justice is complicated. The concept is simple, but implementing just solutions are complicated, expensive, difficult. Justice takes a long time, in many cases. One of the other problems with implementation of just solutions is this – who gets to make the decision about the size of the box in the baseball fan example? Who gets to evaluate whether or not the goal has been achieved, who gets to decide where the boxes are placed? Who gets to decide if boxes will be used, or the fence lowered, or possibly that fans be required to view the game from inside the fenced area.
This is where things get a little complicated, partially because we can’t trust each other. We have to legislate the ultimate goal – should all fans be allowed to see over the fence that started the discussion? Should they have to pay more to watch the game from the other side of the fence? Are boxes the best method of achieving the goal? Where should the boxes come from, made out of which materials? Should the fence be lowered, and if so, by what order of magnitude? Will anyone benefit unfairly?
Answering those questions is the job of legislators, policy makers, governmental entities. Questions like these are the stuff of Congressional hearings, City Council meetings, Board of Alderman, etc. People elected or appointed by another cache of elected or appointed decision makers. Every once in awhile, there is public input.
In a perfect world, we’d start with public input, and community discussion. We’d start with data, and facts to illuminate a problem, and we’d move on to community work. Very often, it seems the process goes from data to legislation, bypassing the community input. We are eager to get to solution, to have “something to show” for the effort of tackling the problem, that we vault over important hard and soft data that could enable a truly equitable, and more effective, solution.
While everyone was digesting the outcome of Derek Chauvin’s trial yesterday, as I keep saying, life was still going on. An Ohio police officer shot a 16-year old African-American girl to death last night. It seems the victim had actually initiated the call for police to come to the scene of her altercation with other girls. They were fighting in the driveway of a residence, an ordinary scene, cars in the drive way, neatly trimmed lawns lining the scene. The officer’s body-cam video shows a typical teen-ager fight scene, chaotic, two girls in a clench and shoving each other into the side of one of the cars. Suddenly, in the clench, one girl is seen to have a knife in her right hand, and she has the other girl in her grasp. It could be construed that she is beginning the motion to stab the other girl, at which point the officer fires. He fires four shots, killing the knife-weilding participant, who is determined to be the one who called for police assistance.
This is a new one. The scenario of most of these news-worthy killings of unarmed Black men has been “the officer was in fear for his/her life”. They had no choice but to shoot. The situation in Ohio was a little different. This was an every-day girl-fight. It happens literally every day, more often with boys and young men, but girls are not exempt from this behavior. So, the officer was not “in fear for his life” when he fired. He said that he was protecting the life of the other girl, who could have been a victim of the knife. He shot her four times. Hm.
Let’s say his rationale was correct, and the victim was going to stab another girl. If she had been successful, she may very well have inflicted grave injury to the other participant. Maybe. The officer had shouted instructions to drop the knife, but in the heat of the battle, his order was ignored. The victim was non-compliant, so once again…a non-compliant Black person is dead. The officer was not in danger. If he was legitimately convinced that he had to shoot her, in order to stop her aggression toward another person, he could have shot her once. Did he have a tazer? Was he alone, or was there backup? I repeat – he shot her FOUR times. Law enforcement is no longer trained to shoot to wound – they shoot to kill. So, he intended to kill her. A 16-year old girl, fighting with another girl. He intended to kill her. I have a problem with that.
Yes, I understand this was a split-second decision. Yes, I understand it was a chaotic scene. But once again, I return to the training objectives and the zero-tolerance culture of compliance that governs law enforcement now. She did not respond to him or follow his orders, so she was a non-compliant enemy combatant, and he did was he was trained to do – he eliminated the aggressor. She was of no threat to him. His life was not in danger, but I contend that what sealed her fate was her non-compliance. Had she turned to face him while still holding the knife, he probably would have shot her anyway, because that would be interpreted as aggression. This is how officers’ training has been described – zero tolerance. They comply or you get control of the situation, however you need to.
That’s just dandy, except there are documented cases of tolerance offered to certain perpetrators. Kyle Rittenhouse was given a bottle of water, while continuing to should his assault weapon after having shot two protestors during a protest. He was a 17-year old white male. The Boulder shooter was firing directly at officers, and he was taken into custody alive, with a leg wound. Other mass shooters in custody, who are white, have been taken into custody alive and well, despite having distance weapons and directly aggressing on officers. Why couldn’t a 16-year old girl with a knife – not a distance weapon – have been taken into custody short of taking four shots from an officer’s gun?
The people who witnessed that girl’s shooting are bound to that event for the rest of their lives. They will see it in their sleep, on the toilet, while driving to the grocery store. Another family is shattered, and will end their lives without this child. Another mother will bury a child. The solution of conflict management in this fashion is overkill. It satisfies the goal of crime reduction and maybe the protection of human life. Maybe. The solution, though, misses a huge part of the problem – you can’t just shoot ANY person with a knife aggressing on another person. Both parties in this situation were participants in the physical conflict. This was not a case of an attack on an “innocent” person who had no involvement. These girls were known to each other. It was a fight. The girl who is now dead had called the police because she felt that HER life was in danger. She received the stock answer to what happens when a generic person is wielding a knife and does not comply with officer commands. She. Died. I guarantee, she never knew what hit her.
You can’t just use a one-size-fits-all approach to law enforcement, or racial equity, or justice. There’s no reason a law enforcement officer, or some enforcement agent who carries a gun, can’t figure out that shooting a 16-year old girl, who is not a threat to the officer, is literally overkill. Again, where was his taser? Where was his backup? where was his de-escalation training? Where was his compassion and caring and desire to come up with a better solution than failure to comply = death?
I am still very gratified that Derek Chauvin was convicted of George Floyd’s murder yesterday. I hesitate to say that I’m happy, because I would not wish that resolution on anyone – one guy is going to jail, and his family will suffer for something over which they had no involvement or control. He will suffer, which I’m not totally concerned with, but don’t wish for anyone. George Floyd will not be returned to his family or this world. So, I don’t know if that’s justice, but possibly it’s a step in the direction of justice.
The fate of this 16-year old in Ohio is not a step in the same direction. Just as in the case of George Floyd, I don’t believe the officer went to the scene of that fight with the intention of killing anyone, or harming anyone. I do believe, however, that his training robbed him of the ability to think critically about what he was seeing. He saw a line from a training manual that said a person with a knife who doesn’t follow y our instruction to drop it should be shot if they look as though they’re trying to stab anyone. No shades of grey. No hesitation. Just shoot, and shoot to kill. And that was literally…the end. For a 16-year old, who may really have been guilty of having an anger management issue. Or she felt that her life was in danger, and she was defending herself. In either case…was that worth her life?