Policing and Race: The Nature of our Problem
Protester wearing an “Assata Taught Me” sweatshirt. Image from an October 9th article on
Alexander Riley | firstname.lastname@example.org
A democracy is a difficult thing to sustain. An informed, rational citizenry is essential, and this is especially so in dealing with points of significant social and political conflict and tension within a democratic society. Such tensions are constant at low levels, but they can percolate into serious discord and lead to the crumbling of major structures necessary for democracy to persist if they are not effectively mitigated by cautious, rational deliberation and analysis followed by reasoned policy.
For several years now, American society has been wrestling with difficult questions concerning the policing of African-Americans. Charged claims have been made about the police’s purportedly heightened propensity to resort to unjustified lethal violence against black suspects. How are we doing as a democracy in our responsibility to rationally and carefully sift through the differing claims being made on this issue with an eye to evidence and truth rather than the easy satisfaction of moral and emotional prejudices?
The short answer: Quite badly, and educational institutions, the mass media, and too many national political figures are by and large not much helping to resolve the problem. They are often making it worse.
The first thing one notices when one looks at the narrative presented by partisans who accuse the police of racist injustice in their dealings with black Americans is that it is often provocative, and sometimes even inflammatory. The Movement for Black Lives claims that there exists “a war on black people.” Black Lives Matter is still more emotionally pointed and critical: “Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.”
What evidence supports such strong claims? The activists would like to convince us that blacks as a population are statistically much more likely to be victims of lethal police violence than whites, and that this itself is evidence of the racist bias of the policing system. But these claims have been carefully investigated and they do not hold up. Peter Moskos, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former Baltimore police officer, looked closely at a version of this claim that was echoed in many media sites a few years ago. Its proponents purported that the data show that blacks are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than whites. Examining the same data set, Moskos revealed that the original analysis contained a number of significant methodological flaws and that the actual ratio of black to white police killings is approximately 4 to 1. Is this discrepancy, though much smaller, still unjustified, he asked? It is hard to have an intelligent position on that question, he argued, unless you include some important context: the black to white homicide ratio in the same population of examination was 15 to 1, and police killings of civilians are closely correlated with the homicide and violence rates in the communities they police, i.e., in communities where a lot of murders and other serious violent crimes are committed, we typically find more frequent police interaction with very violent individuals, which can be expected to end badly with some greater frequency than police interactions with citizens in communities with lower violent crime rates. So, given the great discrepancy in black and white murder and violent crime rates, we should probably not expect to see a one to one correspondence between black and white deaths at the hands of police.
Beyond the claims about the statistical propensity of black and white police killings, the activists often go on to point to specific cases that they believe to be evidence of unjustified and racist police action. But the details of those cases are seldom explored in any real detail; they are simply named and listed. What happens when we look carefully at them, on an individual basis?
Let us give the activists the benefit of the doubt and talk about just the cases they apparently believe to be particularly representative of the phenomenon and their claims. On the front page of the Black Lives Matter website, three such cases are represented with photos of the victims and hashtags stating their names.
Delrawn Small experienced an episode of road rage in East New York when he was allegedly cut off by another driver and then proceeded to chase the car for several blocks, finally exiting his car at an intersection to angrily confront and threaten the other driver, who turned out to be an off-duty police officer who fatally shot Small. The officer was stripped of his badge and is awaiting trial. Video of the event shows that Small was shot almost immediately upon reaching the car door of the officer, that is, he had not physically assaulted him, as the officer claimed. What precisely Small’s intentions were in pursuing and then angrily rushing to the car in the middle of a city traffic stop is unknown, but minimally it has to be recognized that no one other than Mr. Small himself was involved in putting him into the confrontational situation that wound up being lethal, and the officer was off-duty, and therefore not acting in his capacity as an officer of the law.
Alton Sterling, whose lethal encounter with police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana provoked protests, rioting, and the murders of three police officers in that city, had a previous conviction for resisting arrest while armed with a gun, and he was again armed and resisting arrest, reaching into his pants against police commands, when fatally shot. The video of this shooting clearly shows police struggling with him and ordering him to stop reaching for the weapon they had been alerted he was carrying.
Philando Castile also had an extensive criminal history and was stopped as a suspect in the robbery of a convenience store in St. Paul, Minnesota. Surveillance images of the robbery that have been posted online reveal a man who does look quite a lot like Mr. Castile. His girlfriend was in the car during the stop and claimed he had his hands in the air when he was shot, but her account has come under heavy suspicion as central elements of it have been revealed to be grossly inaccurate, e.g., she claimed no effort was made to apply CPR to Castile, which police records falsify. Castile’s case is, of these three, the only one that at this point does not present clear evidence that the escalation of the situation that led to the shooting was in large part the responsibility of the victim himself. The investigation is still ongoing. There has however already been some speculation, based on what officers at the scene are heard saying in the aftermath of the shooting, that Mr. Castile, who was apparently legally carrying a firearm at the time of the stop, may have acted in a way that seriously destabilized and degraded the situation, i.e., that he alerted the officer that he was carrying a concealed weapon and then inexplicably moved to put his hand into his pocket or waistband. Was he reaching for his wallet, as his girlfriend claimed, or for the weapon in order to present it to the officer? Whatever the reason, his action (failing to obey the command of the officer to keep his hands in sight) was not in keeping with the common sense protocol for concealed carry permit holders in such scenarios, and it directly put him in danger by presenting to the officer a potentially deadly situation of an armed robbery suspect reaching into a pocket against the order of the officer.
Of the three cases then that the Black Lives Matter group features on their front page, one (Sterling) is a more or less obviously justified use of police force, the second (Small) is a clear example of reckless and aggressive behavior on the part of the victim directly precipitating a violent encounter that resulted in his death (and likely will soon add as a coda the conviction of his killer, who was not acting in his capacity as an officer of the law when he shot Small), and the third (Castile) is a case about which we still do not know enough to make a reasonable analysis. This adds up to something less than a vindication of the notion that there is a concerted attempt to target and terminate innocent, peaceful black lives. And these three cases arguably tell us nothing about the much more frequent, indeed typical example of police exercise of lethal violence, which almost always involves a suspect armed with a deadly weapon assaulting an officer.
Even the iconic case of the Black Lives Matter movement, that of Michael Brown, was revealed on investigation to deviate in fact almost completely from the emergent mythology of the case embraced by the activists. Brown had just committed a robbery at a convenience store and an assault on the store owner when he was stopped by Officer Darren Wilson. He promptly attacked the officer and tried to take his gun, then was shot while in full advance toward the officer after ignoring repeated orders to desist and comply. A grand jury, and then a Department of Justice investigation, did not find any evidence to merit charges against Wilson, whose life has nevertheless been thoroughly destroyed by the battering his reputation took at the hands of a hostile media. The accounts of witnesses who alternately claimed Brown had his hands up, or was on his knees, or was fleeing from Wilson when he was shot, accounts which were only very infrequently subjected to even the mildest critical questioning by media sources, were found to be complete fabrications.
Getting to the bottom of a complex social issue such as this one requires time, patience, and a rational mind open to evidence. The typical citizen, and here we must include the bulk of the activists who drive movements like Black Lives Matter, can, alas, be expected to fail to do their homework and to succumb to emotional passions with some frequency. Democratic polities assume that passions and a lack of and even a disinterest in education and knowledge are omnipresent difficulties to be confronted in the political life of a society. They attempt to mitigate these limitations in a number of ways. Educational and informational institutions are created with the express purpose of informing us about the facts and teaching us how to best go about ascertaining what the facts are, and national political leaders are counted on to provide an example of cautious, responsible, unifying civic spirit. How have those institutions and leaders done on this matter of race and police violence?
Look around colleges and universities and try to find broad and fair discussions of this problem. They are exceedingly rare. What one finds much more commonly is extreme political partisanship and moral self-righteousness, occasionally still masked in the façade of scholarship, but increasingly nakedly anti-intellectual and unreasoning. The most extreme and unfounded claims of radical partisan groups such as Black Lives Matter are swallowed whole and regurgitated in the form of lectures and ‘campus community events’ for students cowed into acquiescence by political correctness and the well-founded fear of the significant damage to personal reputation that often ensues from being labeled a racist.
And what about the mass media, which is charged with the task of reporting on these events and informing viewers and readers about factual details? These institutions have been even more egregiously negligent in their duty than the schools. Virtually every time a black man is shot by police anywhere in the country, no matter the circumstances and the dearth of details as the investigation takes place, the headlines scream the same incendiary lines and make no effort whatsoever to dig below the rhetoric of the activists, which coincides with the political sensibilities of most of those trained in journalism schools that have become openly politically partisan to the far left. We learn of another “unarmed black man” killed in “questionable” circumstances, and of accusatory accounts by family and purported witnesses who are certain that the victim was a hapless and innocent pawn in the game of viciously racist police, but when it is later revealed, as it too often is, that the unarmed man actually had a gun, or something that he was wielding as people wield guns and that therefore was reasonably interpreted by police to be a gun, or that he was in the process of physically attacking the police or refusing to obey orders given by the police that put them in serious jeopardy when he was shot, and that the glowing portrayal of the victim by family members somehow overlooked a serious criminal record and significant ongoing evidence of sociopathy, and that the alleged witnesses were not in fact present at the scene, or fabricated their stories out of whole cloth, the corrections appear (when they appear at all) not in bold letters on the front page, and with an apology for journalistic irresponsibility, but in small print, at the bottom of the page, displaced by other more recent events that will be reported in the same sensationalist, partisan mode.
Political figures also have grave responsibilities on this that they systematically ignore in the hopes of revving up emotional responses that will favor their own political prospects. In the immediate aftermath of the Philando Castile shooting, when very little was known except his girlfriend’s flawed narrative and a cell phone video she began recording only after the shooting took place, the governor of Minnesota, Mark Dayton, made the following public statement about it: “Would this have happened if those passengers, the driver and the passengers, were white? I don’t think it would have. … I think all of us in Minnesota are forced to confront that this kind of racism exists.” Several national political figures took to social media only days after the Sterling and Castile killings made headlines to make pronouncements based almost entirely on pre-fabricated political agendas rather than careful consideration of facts, in blissful refusal of any recognition of the contribution their intemperate statements would almost certainly make to further exacerbating tension and increasing the potential for rioting and violence against police and other citizens. Hillary Clinton lamented that “[s]omething is profoundly wrong when so many Americans have reason to believe that our country doesn’t consider them as precious as others because of the color of their skin.” Bernie Sanders tweeted: “The violence that killed Alton Sterling and Philando Castile has become an all too common occurrence for people of color and IT. MUST. STOP.” Elizabeth Warren also used Twitter to directly invoke and align with the partisan critics of police: “We’ve seen the sickening videos of black Americans killed in traffic stops. Lives ended by those sworn to protect them. #blacklivesmatter” Here one sees leaders and figures of great moral responsibility in total rejection of any requirement to be accurately informed of events of a disputed and divisive nature before speaking publicly about them, abusing their authority and their influence in a manner that endangers every American and the very foundations of our democracy.
This is a spectacle that should make all Americans sad. And very nervous.