Race and policing in America – Not so black and white… or is it?

An officer in Cleveland was acquitted of manslaughter last week despite firing 49 shots at an unarmed couple in their car. Even without knowing all the facts, there is something in that statement that just shouldn’t sit well with any reasonable human being. Add in the context that the policeman was white and the victims black and this starts to feel all too like a number of other cases in the public eye in recent months. The case of unarmed citizen Eric Garner for example who died after being held in a chokehold by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo despite repeating the phrase now synonymous with this broader issue “I can’t breathe” 11 times. Or the case of the John Crawford III who was shot and killed without warning by police in a Wal Mart in Ohio for picking up an unloaded air rifle off the shelves of that same store. And in this case Melissa Williams and Timothy Russell two unarmed civilians who were shot at 137 times by police, 49 of which were from the gun of officer Michael Brelo whose job it should be to protect them as US citizens.

I want to acknowledge upfront that in these cases and the all too many others like them the victims were not always one hundred percent law-abiding citizens. However, quite frankly this should be unimportant. What I want to focus on here are two common threads that run through each of these cases. Firstly, the victims in each were unarmed making the notion that the police in each acted in self-defense out of a fear for their lives pretty untenable. Secondly, the police in each of these cases were acquitted of charges at trial.

This raises three critical questions. Why are people that are employed by the government killing people that seem to pose no threat to their own safety with increasing regularity? Why is it that the victims are almost always black and the officers always white? And how are they routinely escaping punishment for these crimes?

To state the obvious one cause for the number of deaths of unarmed citizens by police is undoubtedly the prevalence of guns amongst police officers. However, the gun problem in America is far too complex an issue to explore properly in this post and deserves its own which I will undoubtedly attempt to write at some point. The more nuanced reasons for this though seem to me to be that police officers in America are too quick to pull their guns and then when firing them shoot to kill. If this is due to training or instinct I really don’t know. If the former, then something has to be done, and quickly, to drastically curtail these practices. If the latter, then again this should signal the need for better training to ensure training overtakes instinct in these circumstances. Or it signals that the wrong people are being recruited into police forces around the country. In the best case, people that are not fit to hold positions that entail serious responsibility and a cool head under pressure, or in the worst case people with an underlying sadistic bent. Either way reform is imperative. The other reason for the number of unarmed citizens being killed I believe must be in part due to the lack of repercussions for the police officers committing these crimes. Until officers are held accountable for these actions future incidents will continue to occur with alarming regularity. I’ll return to this point in a bit.

The second question is around the issue of race relations. This is the topic underlying these cases that has received the most attention and has been the cause of significant tension across the country. As with guns, the topic of race relations in the US requires a longer dedicated post but let me try to at least touch on some of the issues specific to these incidents. Residual racism is sadly still very much a reality. Legislation has gone a long way to improving equality in the US over the preceding five decades but attitudes are far stickier. It can therefore take a few generations to see wholesale changes in the way kids are taught to view racial equality. Sadly, cleansing society of this residual racism will therefore not happen overnight and will never be 100% complete. Nonetheless, we owe it to ourselves to ensure it is stamped out wherever it exists. Another factor underpinning these race relation issues is the composition of police forces which desperately need to change. While disproportionately white forces continue to police black communities this will inevitably engender misconstrued notions of white superiority and the ability to act with impunity. To counter this efforts need to be redoubled to attract and recruit black citizens into the force. While this is not a solution in and of itself there is no doubt that it would lead to a shift in attitudes within the force and would hopefully act to reduce future incidences of the sort discussed here.

The final question is whether there is an institutionalised problem with the way cases of police killings are tried? The legal system is a complicated beast, so I am not going to attempt an in depth understanding and criticism of the way each of these cases has been tried. However, when reading the facts and/or seeing video footage of each of the cases I have included here, it was very clear to me that the men in question were unjustly killed and that their deaths were due to unnecessary and disproportionate force used by police officers. Yet in all cases the police officers were acquitted. While I doubt this is due to any type of racism amongst jurors or judges, I do think there is something very wrong with where the burden of proof currently lies and/or the level of legal protection given to police officers in these cases. Yes, police officers have an extremely challenging job protecting us as citizens however, when they do overstep the line so flagrantly, resulting in the wrongful deaths of these same citizens, then there has to be a due process that results in them being held accountable.

I do also wonder whether these types of tragic cases are on the rise or whether the combination of the increase in police cameras, the ubiquity of video recording smartphones and the power of social media, mean they are simply receiving more attention. Sadly there are no good statistics on this. However, a small sliver of a ray of light in all this tragedy is that these three factors have undoubtedly been instrumental in ensuring that these instances can no longer be hidden away. The brutality and unjustness on display in these videos cannot be swept under the carpet and cannot help but elicit an angry response from any rational and caring person. As these videos continue to spread police officers will be increasingly less likely to shoot without just cause, and where this does occur the evidence will be increasingly stacked against them.

It is too easy to simply blame racism for the recent disturbing pattern of unnecessary deaths of citizens at the hands of police. This is just one facet of what is clearly a systemic problem; to solve it a holistic solution is required. There is no silver bullet, instead police forces need to gradually diversify to have a racial composition more like the citizens they represent. Their recruiting and training needs to improve to ensure those that are given a gun know when and how to use it. Cameras need to increasingly become mandatory both on police cars and officers themselves. And crucially, there needs to be legislative change to ensure that officers are brought to justice when it is clear that an unfair use of force has been used resulting in the injury or death of citizens, whatever their race. We’ve come a long long way in terms of race relations but we’re far from there yet. However, the collective dissatisfaction with the status quo, and the desire for change sweeping across the country, means I cannot help but be optimistic that we will see wholesale improvements in the not too distant future.

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