All of my life, I have been surrounded by law enforcement officers who have sacrificed their lives in the name of protecting their local communities and bettering said communities. My father was a police officer in the community that he was born and raised in for 23 years. I was always proud to see him in his crisp white Lieutenant’s uniform, and was proud to tell my friends about what my dad did for a living. As a kid, I was always taught that, without question, police officers and other enforcers of the law were my friends – they were here to protect and serve the people in their communities.
However, as I matured, the loyalty I felt toward police officers and being an African American often placed me in an odd position in certain discussions. Even knowing the brutal history – past and present – of brutality rendered mercilessly upon Blacks at the hands of police officers, I always gave them the benefit of the doubt because my dad was one. When some of my friends and acquaintances in college would express how much they disliked or distrusted the police, I never fully understood their seeming disdain for ALL people in black uniforms and in police cars. Until now…
Over the course of the last few years – this past week, particularly, I have begun to understand where that disdain comes from. Slowly, the scales started to fall from my naive little eyes as I read and watched reports on police brutality. From Sean Bell to Oscar Grant, I began to question what drove these officers – people who I thought had all the right intentions – to brutally murder young Black men.
On July 18th, I learned about a 19-year old Black man by the name of Kenneth Wade Harding, Jr. who attempted to flee a traffic inspection and was gunned down by the San Francisco police. All because he allegedly didn’t pay a $2 bus fare. What really grieved my heart was the video that someone captured of the ordeal. To “subdue” this man, the police thought it necessary to shoot him in the back and watch him bleed to death before summoning medical attention. What I saw was disgusting, tragic even, and I was outraged. With guns still raised and angry, shouting crowds kept at bay, these San Francisco officers decided that it was best to watch this 19-year old man struggle for life right before their eyes while they did nothing to come to his aid. What’s worse were the news reports that followed. After the ordeal, the 19-year old man allegedly had a lengthy rap-sheet and had been identified as being a pimp who was a person of interest in Seattle regarding the murder of a teenaged girl – something which no doubt gave the news channels fuel for fodder and kept the attention off of the accountability of these San Francisco police officers. So, right before our very eyes, the story shifts from San Francisco police “subduing” and killing a 19-year old man over bus fare to a 19-year old pimp who allegedly (according some San Fran officers and a handful of unidentified witnesses – the credibility of these “witnesses” is up for debate) had a gun, brandished it toward the officers, and finally had to pay the piper. The thing is, the man was originally from Seattle, and I doubt that these officers knew of his rap sheet BEFORE they shot him. So, what does this young man’s past have to anything to do with how he was wrongly murdered? And, just like that, the tide shifts. With a clever sleight of hand approach, the media turns a victim into a criminal.
Today, I learned about a 13-year old boy in Chicago who was 8 times fatally by the police for allegedly having a BB gun. Responding to a 911 call of shots being fired, the boy – who’s name is Jimmell Cannon – matched the description. Now, if it is true, that this young boy did have a BB gun and did point it toward officers, and did not respond when they asked him to lower the weapon, did it really take 8 rounds of bullets to “subdue” this child? Some may say that in the dark of night, a BB gun could closely resemble a real gun. Still, I doubt that these officers felt that threatened to fire 8 rounds and riddle a child’s body with bullets. Sadly, like the above-mentioned case, this one is a matter of “he-said, she said” because family members insist that the boy had no weapon – not even a BB gun.
I could go on and on with the anecdotes. The theme remains the same. Police in some areas are using undue force and what Marvin Gaye referred to as “trigger-happy policin'” to “subdue” Black bodies. What’s disheartening is that it continues. Chicago, New York, Detroit, Oakland, San Francisco – it’s a sad reality that some will die, unjustly, by the hands of police. And, an overwhelming majority of those are Black men. While I don’t lay the blame completely at the foot of law enforcement for certain street behaviors and mentalities like the “Stop Snitchin'” campaign, I do believe that there is a very legitimate reason why some Black folk don’t particularly care for or trust the police. It’s almost becoming an inherent trait among us not to trust the men and women who are supposed to be protecting and serving us. But with not-so-routine traffic stops and unwarranted frisking, it’s clear why there’s fear.
I argue that there’s not enough personal investment in the neighborhoods and communities that these officers patrol on a daily basis. It’s easy to not think twice and empty a clip into people who you have no respect or regard for and then return to a relatively “safe” environment. It’s easy to have tunnel-vision when identifying the “bad” guys and the “scum of the earth” when you think the overwhelming majority of them are people of color. It’s easy to be unresponsive to urgent calls for 911 in inner-city areas when you think that those areas are destined to fail anyway.
Scenarios like these and others cause me to question the motives of these officers when they sign up for the academy. Furthermore, it causes me to question exactly what is being taught in these said academies. I think that this long disturbing national trend reveals a lack of awareness and understanding about those that are constantly considered the “other.” The solution to such a complex problem requires a complex approach. I certainly don’t have all of the answers, but one of those approaches, I argue, would be to incorporate multi-cultural and diversity training into those police academies that don’t already have such a component. Whether we like it or not, our stereotypes, personal experiences, and perceptions can taint the way we look at things. Police officers can’t afford to let the various lenses they look through paint the entire picture for them. To continue to do so will result in more distrust and more disdain from the communities they are supposed to protect and serve.
Another solution would be to have these officers held accountable for their actions. Whether it’s by the communities, fellow officers, district attorneys, judges, the media, or all of them…it needs to happen. And, we can’t automatically take these officers’ word for what may have happened during questionable situations, just because they have a badge and are license to carry a firearm. Too often, it’s the officer’s word against the victim’s, and too often the officers go unquestioned. The point is, we are all humans, capable of mistakes and missteps. Not holding officers accountable sends a message to everyone that the justice system really ain’t just.