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Police Are Using Implications of Drug Use to Justify Killing

Implications of drug use create a context in which deadly force used by police is framed as the only logical choice.

Police officers clear an area of protesters after curfew in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 29, 2020.

Protests continue to escalate throughout the country in the weeks after Officer Derek Chauvin from the Minneapolis Police Department knelt on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds — including nearly three minutes in which Floyd was non-responsive — killing him. Many elements of Floyd’s death mirror previous incidents throughout the U.S. in which police killed Black people. Like the killings of both Eric Garner and Michael Brown, the initial interaction between Floyd and police escalated from a call about tobacco products. In words reminiscent of Garner, who was strangled to death by Officer Daniel Pantaleo on Staten Island, Floyd gasped “I can’t breathe” while his life was taken from him. Floyd’s killing follows the March killing of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, who, like both Botham Jean and Atatiana Jefferson, was killed by police officers in her own apartment. But Floyd’s case is also beginning to resemble other cases in one particularly notable way: references to drug use are being used to implicate Floyd and exculpate the officers.

Drug use has been referenced three times thus far, first by Officer Tao Thao, one of the four officers on the scene of Floyd’s killing, once by the Hennepin County Medical Examiner, who conducted Floyd’s original autopsy, and once by the Hennepin County Attorney in a complaint based on the autopsy.

Officer Thao stood with his arms crossed and boots firmly planted on the ground, forcefully preventing bystanders’ attempts to intervene with the officer behind him who was kneeling on a man’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Of course, Thao himself could have intervened, as was the policy of the Minneapolis Police Department. Instead, Thao said to the bystanders, “This is why you don’t do drugs kids.”

Thao’s statement serves a double purpose. Not only does it perform the age-old police function of admonishing potential drug users, it also redirects blame to Floyd himself, as if to say that the extrajudicial killing being observed is an acceptable punishment for drug use. Managing Director of Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns for the Drug Policy Alliance Kassandra Frederique released a statement acknowledging how Thao’s drug reference was likely used to redirect blame for his own killing: “Officer Thao invoking drug use as a warning to bystanders and later as pretext for Mr. Floyd’s death is unconscionable, but the real cause of his death was his brutal mistreatment at the hands of police who repeatedly ignored not only his desperate pleas for mercy but also those of bystanders.”

Then on May 29, before the full autopsy was released, the Hennepin County attorney released a criminal complaint that purported to summarize the autopsy of the medical examiner. The report cited “no physical findings that support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxiation or strangulation.” Instead, the report read, “The combined effects of Mr. Floyd being restrained by police, his underlying health conditions and any potential intoxicants in his system likely contributed to his death.”

The implication that had Floyd been in better health and not using “intoxicants” he would have survived asphyxiation drew outrage throughout the U.S., including from Floyd’s family, who hired their own pathologist to conduct an independent autopsy. The results of this autopsy, released June 1, asserted that George Floyd’s death was a result of “asphyxiation from sustained pressure.” Michael Baden, one of the independent medical examiners, stated, “There is no other health issue that could cause or contribute to the death…. Police have this false impression that if you can talk, you can breathe. That’s not true.” Floyd family lawyer Antonio Romanucci similarly called out the attempted redirection to drug use: “Whether or not he was intoxicated or had medications in his system is irrelevant to the cause of death, which is homicide, which is death by the hand of another. The end result, which is George Floyd’s death, would not be any different.”

Implications of drug use also create a context dangerous enough that the deadly force used by the officer is framed as the only logical choice. The Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor found that officers are permitted to use deadly force when they believe their lives are in legitimate danger. Their lives don’t have to actually be in danger; officers simply need to have an “objectively reasonable” belief that this is the case.

Police often imply that drug use, or potential drug use, denotes that the person in question poses a physical danger, particularly when that person is Black. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, Terence Crutcher’s 2016 shooting was filmed by a helicopter, and pilots circling Crutcher’s car can be heard saying, “Looks like a bad dude, too, could be on something.” Crutcher was walking away from his broken-down car, had his hands raised. When Michael Brown was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, Fox News commentator Jim Pinkerton stated, “Eyewitnesses said that Brown was charging the cops…. We’ll know more with a blood test. If he was high on some drug, angel dust or PCP or something, it’s entirely possible you could take a lot more than six bullets and keep charging.” When Sergeant Stacey Koon beat Rodney King in 1991, Koon testified, “In my mind, he had exhibited this hulk-like strength which I had come to associate with PCP.” Yet neither Brown nor King had any drugs in their systems when they were shot and beaten, respectively. The officers’ mere suspicion that drugs might be a factor was enough to justify the violence.

A person’s drug use has also been used as a signal of a violent disposition. When Philando Castile was shot and killed in front of his girlfriend and her child, his shooter, Officer Jeronimo Yanez, justified his fear of Castile by referencing his use of marijuana. In his testimony, Yanez stated, “If he has … the guts and audacity to smoke marijuana in front of the 5-year-old and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her secondhand smoke and the front seat passenger doing the same thing then what, what care does he give about me.” Notably, the belief that drugs predict violence is not supported by research, yet continues to be used in order to justify racist police killings throughout the U.S. As of now, we have not seen what argument the defense attorneys for Officer Derek Chauvin will make. If history is any indication, however, implications of substance use is likely.

And perhaps in the most overt case of citing drug use as an excuse to justify violence, alleged drug use can be used to request a “no-knock warrant” from a judge to gain permission to raid and enter businesses or homes when they suspect the announcement of the raid may lead to destruction of the property for which they are searching (for example, a bag of drugs being flushed down the toilet). Reports show that 20,000 such raids happen in the U.S. every year, many resulting in injury to those in the raided home because of the use of weaponry such as flash-bangs and smoke grenades. In one study (conducted by one of the authors of this article), interviews from four individuals in a home raided by a SWAT team (and later by Immigration and Customs Enforcement) found: “Interviewees described many symptoms that would likely fit within PTSD diagnostic criteria, including nightmares, suicidality, avoidance of triggering stimuli (e.g., government officials), and the inability to care for their children.” The authors found: “This study suggests that individuals exposed to law enforcement home raids would likely meet diagnostic criteria for PTSD or complex PTSD symptoms.”

Not only are these raids traumatic, they are often deadly. Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black emergency room technician, was asleep when Louisville Metro Police officers entered her home using a no-knock warrant. They fired multiple shots, hitting her at least eight times, killing her. The Courier-Journal reports that officers used a no-knock warrant signed by a judge based on officers’ belief that her home was used to keep drugs or guard money earned from drug sales. Much of the ensuing public conversation has focused on whether or not Taylor’s boyfriend fired at officers as they entered the home. But many have pointed out that firing in self-defense is not illegal, and that, by definition, a no-knock raid does not involve announcing who one is as they break into the home.

Moving Forward, Making Change

As police continue to kill Black people, Native people and other people of color — in their own homes, in their own cars, or in public spaces where they have every right to be — it’s imperative that advocates and policy makers learn from each of these acts of violence, both to honor the lives of those killed and to work toward preventing these killings from happening again.

The extrajudicial killing of George Floyd, as well as those of Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and so many more, illustrate the ways in which interactions to address minor crimes can escalate quickly and end in police-perpetrated murders of Black people. As the American Public Health Association argues, “mass criminalization is a key mechanism through which communities of color experience heightened rates of law enforcement violence.” Therefore, “a critical step in reducing structurally mediated physiological and psychological violence by law enforcement is to repeal laws that promote or justify increased scrutiny of specific populations.” Laws that target people for loitering, sex work and minor drug possession would never have the occasion to rise to killings if these behaviors were not deemed illegal to begin with.

Second, we must make conscious decisions about where money — both that in our own wallets and in the coffers of local and state governments — flows. Individually, we can donate to organizations such as Communities United Against Police Brutality and Black Visions Collective to address police violence and incarceration broadly, or to The Bail Project organized by the Detroit Justice Center and ActBlue Charities, which allows you to split your donations among all listed bail funds. (At the same time, we must advocate against the cash-bail system altogether, which serves as a means to criminalize and profit off of caging the poor.) National demands to actively defund police departments are continuing to grow as well. As Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, shared, “The demand of defunding law enforcement becomes a central demand in how we actually get real accountability and justice, because it means we are reducing the ability of law enforcement to have resources that harm our communities.” As argued by Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing, what is needed is not reform, but defunding of police to invest instead in mental health services, anti-violence programs and school counselors.

Third, we must draw lessons from other communities oppressed by law enforcement in related ways. Post-9/11, the U.S. has seen an increase in xenophobia and racialized enforcement policies. The “war on terror,” like the “war on drugs,” capitalized on the heightened fear for public safety. Both campaigns brought massive militarized forces into the streets and homes of communities of color. Neither campaign was developed on sound evidence, but rather a narrative of a threat located among certain racial and religious groups.

Research published in the American Journal of Public Health shows that police kill an average of 2.8 people a day in the U.S., with higher risk of death for Black and Latino men. Work published in The Lancet shows that police killings of Black people have “spillover effects,” negatively impacting the mental health of Black Americans. It’s clearly time to heed the calls of activists: Defund the police, stop policing killings and end the drug laws used to justify the violence.

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