Top photo credit: The Daily Dot
Eric Garner’s crime was selling bootlegged “loosies,” loose cigarettes sold illegally to bypass New York City’s steep tobacco tax. He had been arrested for this crime twice in a year, and was “chafed” by police scrutiny. He brought a complaint to a federal court in 2007 that a police officer performed an unwarranted cavity search, “digging his fingers in my rectum in the middle of the street.” After such an incident, Garner was wary during every interaction he had with the police. This was the prelude to tragedy on Staten Island. When police attempted again to arrest Garner for selling loose cigarettes, he argued with them. An officer deemed it appropriate to put Garner in a chokehold while other officers tackled him. Garner was asthmatic, and the chokehold killed him. The entire incident was caught on cell phone film, and it clearly shows that Eric Garner is not resisting, choking to death, and repeating the phrase, “I can’t breathe.” Only one person was indicted in connection to Eric Garner’s death: the man who filmed the incident.
In Albuquerque, New Mexico, Andrew Lopez was pulled over because his rear lights were out. When he abandoned his car and tried to run away, the officer on scene thought Lopez was holding “the biggest handgun that he had ever seen.” Lopez was unarmed. The officer shot him three times and, after he was down, shot him once more in the chest to kill him. A police training officer then stated that these actions could be used to “train officers on the proper use of deadly force.”
Also in Albuquerque an army veteran named Kenneth Ellis, who suffered from PTSD, threatened to shoot himself in the head. Albuquerque police successfully “prevented Ellis’s suicide by shooting him in the neck, fatally.” Police responded to another suicidal man who was pouring gasoline on himself, preparing to self-immolate. The officers tasered him, which lit the man on fire. In Seattle, a man with mental health issues yelling at traffic lights was pepper-sprayed, hit with a baton, chased by four officers, kneed, elbowed, beaten, and ultimately arrested.
If these aren’t examples of excessive use of force, take the case of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, who made the mistake of driving past Cleveland Police Department’s headquarters. The police there believed they heard a shot from the car and gave chase. Russell and Williams were unarmed as 60 squad cars and over 100 officers joined in their pursuit, which culminated at a school park when 13 of the officers involved killed Russell and Williams after firing 137 shots into the car. The Department of Justice concluded that any shots the officers claimed to have heard from the car were, in reality, “being fired by fellow officers.”
Cleveland Police Department’s most heinous case, however, lies in the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was killed by officer Timothy Loehmann. Rice was playing with a toy gun in a local park. The caller explicitly informed the police on two occasions that the gun was probably fake, but video shows a squad car aggressively barreling off the street and into the park, stopping directly next to Rice. Loehmann shot Tamir Rice less than two seconds after his arrival on the scene.
All of these incidents taken together clearly show a pattern among policing practices in this country: police are too quick to use deadly force. In the United States, the police have a tendency to shoot and kill more frequently than their counterparts around the world. Many of these unnecessary killings are perpetrated against people with mental illnesses and people who aren’t white. The sheer number of such abuses seems to conclusively illustrate that America’s police are woefully prejudiced, inadequately trained, or both.
The Ferguson unrest placed the issue of police brutality at the forefront of national interest. Were police really using unnecessary force, and were they discriminating against black people? This question grew rapidly into a nationwide controversy: Are police officers as trustworthy as most people think?
Perception of police officers varies along racial lines.
It is important to note that in spite of all the controversy, police remain one of the three most trusted institutions in the United States, alongside small business and the military. A Gallup poll conducted in June 2016 revealed that 56% of respondents felt confident in their police force. But while this figure shows that a majority of Americans trust the police, it fails to show the enormous racial disparity revealed by the poll. While 58% of whites expressed confidence in the police, only 29% of blacks shared that opinion. This is already indicative of an enormous gap between whites and blacks: the majority of whites trust the police, and the majority of blacks do not. This difference in opinion carries over to similar questions about policing. For instance, when asked if they thought minorities were treated fairly by police, 50% of black Americans said no; compare that to the more than 75% of whites surveyed who said yes. 60% of white Americans believe the police are honest. 28% of black Americans can say the same.
This gulf in opinion points to a tremendous discrepancy in how black and white Americans view the police. Most black Americans feel mistreated by police officers, while most white Americans feel not only that the police are fair to them, but also that the police are fair to minorities as well. This means that many white people in the U.S. ignore or lend no credence to the opinions and experiences of black Americans.
There is widespread ignorance among white Americans regarding how police in predominantly black areas act. It is not an exaggeration to assert that blacks and whites do not really experience life in the United States the same way, a fact that is only exacerbated by white America’s unwillingness to listen to the concerns and opinions voiced by others. This willful ignorance leaks into politics and leads to foolish policies.
Conservative pundits regularly misunderstand or intentionally misuse statistics about violence.
As Black Lives Matter gained momentum in Ferguson, a contrary movement across the country was brewing, based off of false statistics and motivated by anecdotal tragedies. Its members created the slogan “Blue Lives Matter,” a call for supporting law enforcement and a rhetoric directly confrontational with that of the Black Lives Matter movement. Their concern was that Black Lives Matter was creating difficulties for police, or worse, specifically targeting police. This was partially the result of Fox News’s decision to lie about the nature of Black Lives Matter, as Geraldo Rivera, Elizabeth Hasselback, Fox and Friends, Bill O’Reilly, and Neil Cavuto all called Black Lives Matter a hate group. Beyond the media influence, Blue Lives Matter was heavily motivated by the killing of police officers in several major incidents, such as the murder of Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in New York or the murder of five police officers in Dallas. These incidents were viewed as direct results of Black Lives Matter’s “anti-police” rhetoric. They influenced public outrage so much that the executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations William Johnson said on Fox News:
“I think [the Obama administration’s] continued appeasements at the federal level with the Department of Justice, their appeasement of violent criminals, their refusal to condemn movements like Black Lives Matter, actively calling for the death of police officers… all the while blaming police for the problems in this country.”
He capped off his statement by proclaiming that the Obama administration was sparking and permitting a “war on cops.” Johnson’s claim was that Black Lives Matter was a hate group organized for the purpose of killing cops, and doing so with the explicit consent of the U.S. government. It was, in short, outlandish. Johnson either didn’t understand or didn’t care about Black Lives Matter’s central organizing principal, so he instead lied on national news in order to create sympathy for the police.
On first glance, Johnson’s claim at least appeared to be founded in some reality. Statistics showed that in 2014, the year of the Ferguson unrest, 51 police were killed in the U.S., an increase from 27 police killed the previous year. The spike in police killings frightened people and appeared to show that recent accusations of police injustice were contributing to higher numbers of police killed in the U.S. But Seth Stoughton, a former police officer and assistant law professor, stated that “2014 looked bad in comparison with 2013 mainly because 2013 was so good.” 2014’s increase in police deaths exists because 2013 “was the safest year in recorded history” for police officers.
The data validate Stoughton’s point: While spikes may occur year to year, the general trend in police killings has been steadily falling for years. And, Stoughton says, the extreme turbulence of the data is also due to the fact that, even though the spikes look sharp:
“When we’re talking about 780,000 state and local police officers who are interacting with people on 67 million occasions every year, the increase from five to eight, or five to 10—statistically, it doesn’t look significant.”
Conservative media and Blue Lives Matter continue to attest that police in this nation are besieged, despite the fact that the statistics show this to be incorrect. They also claim that Black Lives Matter explicitly advocates for killing police, which is also a lie. Why do all of this? Daunasia Yancey of Black Lives Matter explains that it’s “another way to protect police from accountability.” But more than that, they lied to protect themselves from accountability. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “it was only a matter of time before some criminal shot a police officer. If that’s all it takes to turn Americans away from police reform, the efforts were likely doomed from the start.”
Of course the murder of police officers is a terrible offense. But to let it distract from systematic racism is irresponsible, especially when there isn’t actually a “war on cops.” Police lives do matter, but Blue Lives Matter as a movement organized itself around phony perceptions and misinterpreted statistics. Black Lives Matter, on the other hand, was responding to real and very troubling trends in American policing.
Many police officers discriminate against blacks, and policing in predominantly black areas is ineffective and irresponsible.
Before I start writing about the particular brand of policing in black communities, it’s worth noting that policing in the United States is far more dangerous a task than policing in other countries. This is because the U.S. is a particularly violent nation. Indeed, when Donald Trump makes statements about American cities being “among the most dangerous in the world,” he’s actually right (that being said, Trump cited Oakland and Ferguson as examples. Neither city is among the most dangerous in the world). Cities like St. Louis, Baltimore, Detroit, and New Orleans have high homicide rates by global standards. Experts say that comparing the level of “dangerousness” between cities doesn’t really work because factors like social contexts and political contexts, as well as “disparities in legal definitions, incident reporting and data collection” tend to nullify any findings. But homicide rates are reliable for comparison, and if that’s the case, then some of America’s cities really are extremely violent.
There is, of course, one very clear explanation for why this is: guns. Gun ownership is far more common in the U.S. than in other similar countries. That means not only that police officers have to deal with more guns, they “expect to encounter more guns, making them more likely to anticipate and perceive a threat and use deadly force.”
Americans have a violence problem that has been well documented, and the number of guns that police officers encounter naturally makes their work more dangerous. But gun ownership figures cannot account for the fact that “black people are much more likely to be shot by police” in the United States.
Barring all political disagreement, the simple fact of the matter is that police shoot and kill more black people than white people. Black teenagers between 2010 and 2012 were “21 times as likely as white teens to be shot and killed by police” and 62.7% of unarmed people killed by police were minorities. Studies conducted at Colorado University in Boulder showed that “officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game situations,” which indicates that implicit or explicit biases radically change how police officers perceive threats and when they turn to deadly force. Outrage about Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and many others isn’t making too much of “isolated incidents:” it’s responding to the very real and very pressing problem of discrimination in many American police departments.
But beyond just that, Department of Justice investigations have shown that many police departments push discrimination far beyond implicit or undiscovered biases. The Cleveland Police Department may be the absolute worst offender, with the investigation uncovering that “police officers used excessive deadly force, including shootings and head strikes with impact weapons; unnecessary, excessive, and retaliatory force including Tasers, chemical sprays, and their fists; and excessive force against people with mental illness or in crisis.” The report also documented a sign in the Cleveland Police Department’s parking lot that read “Forward Operating Base,” as if “it were an outpost in Afghanistan.” Police in Cleveland believed they were at war with their own community, and this perception made their policing methods more violent. The Department of Justice has documented these violent and discriminatory practices as well in Ferguson, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Albuquerque, and Portland.”
This could be partially attributable to the fact that police work in black areas has long been based on flawed logic and a broken system. Called the “broken windows” policy, the idea is simple: “Police should use statistical models to identify areas where crime is likely to happen and then flood them with officers who crack down on even minor offenses in hopes of preventing more serious ones.”
There are a couple of reasons why this method of policing is prominent. The first is that the departments are often funded directly by fines and court fees, and overpolicing minor offenses generates large revenues, creating a “slush fund” for the police department in question. This was a practice the Department of Justice discovered and denounced in Ferguson. The second reason why overpolicing of minor crimes occurs is because “police managers fret about lazy officers.” American police forces typically evaluate their officers based on how many arrests they make. That means that, for an American police officer, writing a ticket for jaywalking is valued by a police manager more highly than preventing a violent crime. The final reason for overpolicing petty crime? It’s easier than policing violent crime.
This accusation might sound unfounded, but a pattern in policing in impoverished black communities emerges that cannot be ignored. The residents in these areas feel the police as a dominating force in their lives, and they deal with the oppression of excessive policing every day. Yet, clearance rates in the same areas indicate, if anything, underpolicing. In some Chicago neighborhoods, for example, “the percentage of homicides in which the police arrest or identify a suspect, is less than 20 percent.”
Such a low clearance figure beggars belief. While people are subject to stop and frisk, arrested and fined for jaywalking, and beaten for selling cigarettes, more than 80 percent of murders go unsolved. This is not anecdotal: many black neighborhoods, David Kennedy writes, have “very high rates of arrest for minor offenses white folks routinely get away with, and shockingly low arrest rates for serious violent crime.”
What emerges from this information is a picture of serious mismanagement, discrimination, and incompetence within many police departments in predominantly black areas. Police arrest and fine constantly, and they fatally shoot blacks with appalling regularity. People have argued that these frankly inexcusable violations are simply the price certain communities must pay for upholding the law. But the fact of the matter is that with low clearance rates for violent crime in these same areas, police mistreatment of black Americans is to nobody’s benefit but the officers involved in these offenses.
Americans, either in consensus or complicity, allow violence in poor black areas.
Sympathy for police officers is understandable. They pursue violent criminals and, as many police dramas have taught us, they never know if they’ll be home at the end of the day. It is a dangerous job that most Americans don’t want to do, and we should be thankful that somebody is willing to protect and defend. But using that sympathy to legitimize police brutality is unacceptable. The trouble is, as Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it, that “when the police brutalize people, we are forgiving because ultimately we are really just forgiving ourselves.” The police are representatives of the government, and in our country, that means they represent the people. “The police are not the true agents of the violence,” says Coates. “We are.” And for many people, rationalizing this violence therefore takes the form of legitimizing it.
Police have dangerous jobs. They frequently feel threatened and in the heat of the moment they might make a wrong decision, but they had to do so. They will say the person was bigger than them. They thought the suspect had a gun. They were acting weird. It doesn’t matter which excuse a person calls upon: “We might comfort ourselves with the kind of vague unknowables,” Coates says, but “the citizen who needs to look away generally finds a reason.” In the case of the shooting of unarmed black men, looking away takes the form of excusing the violence. This means that, explicit or complicit, Americans “have decided that it is permissible, that it is wise, that it is moral for the police to de-escalate through killing.” To put it another way: there are those who, in light of the fact that police kill a disproportionate number of black citizens, believe that the shooting was, however unfortunate, necessary in order to keep the peace.
While we are probably all guilty of this thinking to a certain extent, conservative pundits are particularly adept at throwing out bogus statistics and ridiculous comparisons, ostensibly in an effort to dismiss police brutality by obscuring it in a smokescreen of “unknowables.” And for a group of people who are adamant that events like the Ferguson unrest aren’t “black/white” conflicts, they certainly like to talk about “black/white” conflicts. Nowhere is the attempt to disguise the national crisis surrounding police brutality more apparent than in the lie that is “black-on-black violence.”
Black-on-black violence is a problem, but conservatives use it to distort the truth about police brutality and racism.
There are very few people in the United States right now who will still publicly justify slavery. And yet, every once in a while, somebody will decide to state that Africans sold each other into slavery as well. There’s an iota of truth couched in this statement, and it’s not explicitly endorsing America’s history with slavery. When a person makes this argument though, their objective is clear and insulting: don’t blame whites for slavery.
This argument isn’t very common, but an equally insulting and far more prevalent one somehow gets resurrected during every single national discussion about police brutality: black-on-black crime. The number one proponent of this ridiculous slogan is former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. I’ll let him speak for himself:
“The fact that is that I find it very disappointing that you’re not discussing the fact that 93 percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks.”
Giuliani might be on to something here. According to 2012 FBI statistics, “2,412 blacks were killed by black offenders.” Unfortunately for Giuliani, “2,614 whites were killed by white offenders.” White-on-white crime, as it turns out, is just as prevalent as black-on-black crime. It would appear that, in this highly segregated nation, “killers tend to murder people who live near them.” The problem really lies in the proportions. The white population in the U.S. is nearly five times as large as the black population, meaning that the similar figures listed above represent a much higher homicide rate in black communities than in white communities. This is clearly a troublesome issue, but it’s not Giuliani’s point. The sole reason for calling it “black-on-black” crime is to cast it as refuting any white on black violence and therefore negating any allegation of racism. How can white police officers be killing too many black men when, after all, so many black people kill other black people?
Giuliani doesn’t seem to realize that civil rights leaders are dedicated to combating “black-on-black” crime. He often attacks Al Sharpton for “race baiting” while allowing black-on-black violence, but Sharpton, along with the NAACP and many others, has actively campaigned in places like Chicago to raise awareness about black-on-black crime. Why doesn’t Giuliani know this? The likeliest explanation is that he doesn’t really care about black-on-black crime at all. The only thing he cares about is proving that he and his compatriots are not racist.
We have a problem with violence in America. Many of our cities have astronomical homicide rates, which is unacceptable. The police, in turn, answer this violence with violence of their own. While they engage in this practice, they also fail in the majority of cases to prevent violent crimes. They discriminate against black Americans and have been shown time and time again to be biased in their policing. They are responsible for fatal shootings of black Americans and they rarely, if ever, accept responsibility for these actions. Meanwhile, conservative pundits cloud the story by exploiting tragedy or citing black-on-black crime, looking for anything to help the police avoid accountability for systemic racism.
This eventually means that conservative pundits pronounce that police do not have a duty to be responsible. Look at black-on-black crime, Giuliani says, as if criminals and police officers should be evaluated by the same standard. But the police are representatives of the United States government, and so long as they’re “operating under the color of law,” they should be held to a higher standard than common murderers. And all of this overlooks one particularly salient fact: police violence is preventable.
Changing policing methods can cut down on violence and result in a better relationship between the police and the public.
Ta-Nehisi Coates remembers his father and many of the other adults he knew growing up. He remembers that in his community, “mediating violence between young people is part of being an adult.” He’s not speaking about police officers, but simply members of his community who understood that de-escalation neither required nor warranted violence. This is a point that the police seem to have forgotten in many areas. When you watch the footage of Tamir Rice’s death, the police speed in and pull right up next to him. When Michael Brown ran from Officer Wilson’s car, Wilson left the vehicle to pursue on foot. When people discuss these cases, they tend to focus on whether police actions were legal, rather than whether they were preventable. As Ronald Davis, head of the Department of Justice’s COPS initiative put it:
“Police need to stop chasing down suspects, hopping fences, and landing on top of someone with a gun. When they do that, they have no choice but to shoot.”
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Police in places like Cleveland are prepared to encounter guns and violence, so much so that they think of their headquarters as a “forward operating base” and presumably of themselves as soldiers in a military endeavor. But this style of policing leads to confrontations that do not need to happen. If police keep their distance and calmly engage with suspects and members of the community, the incidence of fatal shootings falls precipitously. But for this to happen, police departments cannot think of their communities as the enemy.
This model for changing policing practices has positive results where it has been tried. In Camden, New Jersey, police worked “with community groups and churches” and built relationships with local citizens. This resulted in a style of policing that resorted to force with far less frequency. In June and July of 2014 the results were palpable: “the city went 40 days without a homicide — unheard-of in a Camden summer.” When they stopped prioritizing tickets and fines in favor of true public safety and trust, Camden became exemplary of better policing practices.
Similar strategies have had similar success in the LAPD. Their Advancement Project Community Safety Initiative “put officers in… dangerous housing projects” where it instructed them to “enhance safety while making as few arrests as possible.” The result? Arrests fell by half, while violent crime fell by 70 percent. This solution genuinely seems like it could bring relief to many crime-stricken areas. To cut the number of arrests along with violent crime, making for safer communities and bolstering trust between the public and the police is a solution almost too good to be true. All its advocates can hope for is that police departments around the country take note of their successes
Unfortunately, President Trump isn’t the likely candidate to push these reforms. Back in 2013, Trump expressed his wholehearted support for stop and frisk, an oppressive method of policing that discriminated against minorities and did nothing to reduce the incidence of violent crime. Even at the first presidential debate, years after the inefficacy of stop and frisk policies was decidedly proven, Trump claimed that they had “worked very well in New York” and speculated about implementing them in Chicago. Trump has similarly threatened to “send in the feds” to deal with violence in Chicago, which once again demonstrates Trump’s wrongheadedness when it comes to policing practices. For now, the nation can only compromise and accept body cameras (which do in fact appear to cut down on police violence, so long as officers don’t switch them off), and pray that Donald Trump doesn’t do anything to cripple the potential for police reform.
This might be the best we can hope for, but Donald Trump ran as the “law and order candidate,” and we have every reason to believe that his opinion of Black Lives Matter and police brutality has been indelibly altered by lies and fictions propagated by Fox News and, for that matter, Trump’s own advisors. In the next installation of this series, we will examine how coverage of protests in Ferguson and Baltimore, coupled with the nuances of police brutality and discrimination, have mixed together to form Donald Trump’s opinion of black America. This opinion, a series of misconceptions, falsehoods, and prejudices, is encapsulated in Donald Trump’s often-used phrase, the “inner cities.”
Read Part III here!
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 Transcript of the First Presidential Debate, The New York Times.