A Problem of Culture

A recent study on police use of force by Harvard economist Roland Fryer found no evidence of racism in police shootings. This was lauded by those who wish to deny the existence of an anti-black bias. But lethal use-of-force incidents make up a tiny fraction of police interactions. The study found widespread systemic racism in non-lethal uses of force. Scott Greenfield of Simple Justice blog best explains why this matters:

No, every black person does not get shot. Every black person is not treated like a subhuman threat. Every cop does not hate and fear blacks. But what parent wants his kid to be the one with a march and memorial? Is the fear irrational? No. It’s not just the minute percentage of unarmed, wrongfully killed blacks, but the percentage arrested without cause, the millions who were told to kiss concrete as they were stopped on their way to school for a quick stop and frisk for the third time that week. It’s the experience of listening to cops curse at them without any provocation whatsoever. Most don’t end up dead, but there is no list of people treated like dirt who walked away breathing.

Black people want to be treated with respect and human dignity, just like everyone else, whether they have a criminal record or not. And are you really comforted with the fact that cops kill white people just as easily as black people? Will this let you shrug off protests and sleep well at night? Simple Justice blog commenter Odder summed it up well:

I always despair that people don’t realize this isn’t *just* a race problem, it’s a power and/or class problem. Really, it’s a problem for anyone that a particular cop manages dehumanize, not just black people (though there’s no doubt they are getting the worst of it). Racial bias training isn’t going to fix that.

I had one internet commenter tell me, in defense of police, that there would be more acts of violence (due to the horrible people cops deal with daily) except for the police holding themselves back. If cops can barely contain their inherent urge to violence, they should consider another line of work. There is no shame in not being able to do the job. People change careers all the time.

This dehumanization of police victims is shockingly common, even among the religious. But it was the Pharisees who criticized Jesus for hanging out with sinners and tax collectors. Jesus treated the dregs of society with respect and dignity. So should we.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement has brought the cultural standing of black persons to the forefront of public attention. There is a race problem. Even some cops are realizing the problem. But there is a more significant cop culture problem. Cops want respect, fine. They like being called heroes, fine. They don’t want to be killed while doing their jobs, fine. They want power, umm, maybe that’s a problem.

It isn’t acceptable to treat the population they serve as less than human. It isn’t okay to suppress their constitutional rights. And it’s not unreasonable to expect them to use alternatives to force.  Greenfield concludes:

If you want respect, a medal for being a hero, then be the person who deserves it. Be the cop who has the guts to tell his fellow cops that they are the problem, even though it’s going to make you unpopular in the locker room.

Colin Kaepernick, who I’ve written about here and here, has quite successfully brought these issues to a public discussion. That Harvard can produce a study that shows very clear bias and the reaction is “See! There is no bias! Cops shoot whites just as readily as blacks” means we should be grateful for his protest. As much as he has been vilified for his stance, you couldn’t ask for it to be done any better:

I know about Kaepernick’s protest. And ironically, I happen to think it’s a great protest, a perfect exercise of his right to express his views. He commits no crime, impairs no one else’s rights and communicates his opinion widely. This is exactly what protest should be.

This isn’t a blog about the law and I am not a lawyer. I read Scott Greenfield’s blog because he is a criminal defense lawyer. I’m just writing about topics that interest and concern me. So it is probably not apparent to most who read this that the law allows cops to justifiably kill another human; they need only be fear for their lives (either during the shooting or in retrospect), whatever that means. And it surprises many that cops are not required to disable suspects. They can, and do, legally shoot to kill even when another alternative would have been more appropriate. Cops can legally engage in many behaviors that most people would be uncomfortable with as long as they are deemed ‘reasonable’, whatever that means.

Kaepernick knows these things. Why? Not because he’s a lawyer, but because he’s black. He was not given the luxury of assuming the law works in a way that it doesn’t. People surely do not like being told that things don’t work the way they think they do. We like to think that cops are perfect. But they are human, like any one of us. They do good things and they do bad things, just like anyone else. The idea that most cops are good and except for a few bad ones is a myth. Everyone is both good and bad, just at different times. So let’s get past the personal attacks and admit that there are problems. Let’s have discussions about how to fix them. There is no need to vilify cops or blacks to do it. Some feelings might get hurt, but I can live with that if it saves lives.

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