Another week has passed, and several more communities must cope with the senseless loss of at least three more African-American males who were shot to death by a police officer.
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, Officer Betty Shelby is confronted with a situation where an apparently unarmed African-American male is walking towards a vehicle stopped in the middle of the street. Although the man fails to fully obey her commands, he raises his empty, open hands high in front of him as he continues to walk away from her. Her first assumption is not that she has encountered a mentally ill or disabled man; no, her first reaction is that this man is a dangerous threat. She draws her firearm. She then begins walking towards him in what appears to be an extreme state of fear. What is significant is that he is not approaching her but is instead walking away from her. The officer’s own actions in moving toward this large, non-compliant black male are heightening her own fear.
Some members of the community who are extremely angry and frustrated by these incidents believe that the reason police officers—particularly white officers—shoot Black males is simply to get rid of them. History and even current events show that a large segment of our population has professed a genocidal mentality towards Black Americans. However, with most police officer shootings there is something more going on. There are at the same time a significant number of white Americans being unnecessarily shot by police as well, although not at the same rate as Black Americans. The root of this, I think, lies in the manner in which new recruits are socialized into law enforcement.
During their training at the police academy, new officers are taught to recognize threats and to react to those threats accordingly, at least in the classroom. However, after they graduate from the academy and are sworn in to serve on a police force, they are indoctrinated on the the reality of police work by veteran officers on the street. Their sworn duty to serve and protect quickly gives way to self-preservation. The officers are told repeatedly at roll call at the start of each shift that their highest priority is to return unharmed at the end of it. Although officer safety is important and laudable, it seems to have become the singular goal in all police interactions with the public, taking precedence over preventing crime, keeping the peace, earning the public’s trust, and showing basic respect for human life.
And police who adopt this survival mentality view themselves as warriors or soldiers. For them, the community function of policing becomes a military one, where everyone with whom they come into contact is a potential threat that must be controlled, or neutralized, at all cost.
This means that the suspect needs to know right away who is in charge and that this officer will not be challenged or disrespected. Thus, officers perceive any affront to this professed authority as a threat which will be swiftly dealt with. But this aggression is often coupled with fear, sometimes real but often imagined.
Many police officers operate with a preconceived notion that most crime is committed by African-American males and those males are physically imposing and dangerous. In stops of African-American males, police routinely approach with a hand on their firearm thereby displaying extreme aggression. If the officer senses disrespect, or even a hint of irritation, he will force everyone out of the car and subject them to an intrusive search, often at gunpoint. Any movement that is not wholly controlled and directed by the officer results in a display of violence. When this warrior mentality is coupled with fear, the officer can interpret any movement by the subject as a life-threatening gesture justifying the use of deadly force. The result can be tragic.
The nature of, and response to, Terrence Crutcher’s recent death at the hands of a Tulsa police officer show a growing awareness of this problem in America.
Despite being outfitted with all the tools of a modern police officer, including a radio, pepper spray, and a taser, Officer Shelby drew her gun and trained it on Terrence Crutcher as she approached him. When she saw her fellow officer taser Crutcher, she fired her gun anyway. This tragedy was the result of three widely held notions that combined in a predictable, and tragic, way. Officer Shelby had been trained to believe that: (1) Black males present a significant danger; (2) they are usually armed; and (3) the only way to ensure returning home after encountering a seemingly dangerous threat is to shoot first.
Television news will invariably feature a pundit who will state that all Black men who have been shot were non-compliant, resisting arrest, or running from the police. Some will go so far as to state that such conduct justifies the use of deadly force. ‘If Blacks do not want to get shot by the police, they should obey all of the officer’s commands.’ This logic presents two problematic notions: (1) only those who exhibit complete obedience are worthy of protection or preservation; and (2) an officer’s duty to serve and protect has exceptions.
African-Americans have come to distrust and disrespect the police based on how society and the police have mistreated them over the past two centuries. Disrespect inevitably leads to distrust which, in turn, leads to disobedience. African-Americans know that there are many in our society who assign no value to black lives and that police in high-crime neighborhoods are looking for any reason to make an arrest.
The solution is not to hope that our Black citizens become more compliant; it is to teach police de-escalation techniques and to stress the importance of their interacting with African-Americans in a positive way, rather than arbitrarily stopping them for minor traffic or malfunctioning equipment offenses that are typically overlooked in white neighborhoods.
Police and the people in the communities they are sworn to serve must learn to respect and regard each other as they do themselves, and demonstrate a respect for all lives. These efforts will help build community trust in the police, which is essential to stopping and solving crime, and will help dispel the inherent fear many police have of African-American males, which too often ends in violence that destroys peace and disrupts lives.
If you would like to learn more about your rights or believe that you have been discriminated against please visit the Civil Rights Justice Center located at 2150 N. 107th Street in Seattle Washington or visit our website at civilrightsjusticecenter.com