In Baton Rouge this past Tuesday, police shot 37 year-old Alton Sterling as he lay on the ground with no weapons in his hands. The father of five was murdered. There’s no other way to describe it. He was physically assaulted, knocked to the ground, and shot to death as he lay defenseless.
Almost as soon as news of the slaying was released, there were those railing against his criminal record, his supposed sins and failings. Once again, “police have a hard job,” and “not all cops are bad” were refrains from the social media warriors.
And once again, people of color have been given another reason to feel marginalized and under constant threat. Once again, all Americans have another reason to distrust interactions with police, but especially those who aren’t white males.
Once again, police were seen killing someone for no reason.
Police in America have the authority (and weapons) to employ deadly force if deemed necessary. From a purely statistical standpoint, deadly force from police has actually been reduced from decades past. However, in this age of instantaneous information, we now know when police blatantly betray their public trust and murder those who were not a threat. And reduced or not, it still occurs, and is still a serious problem. People are speaking up now. The Black Lives Matter movements has arisen from the outrage over police shooting unarmed (mostly) black citizens. Sometimes unrest of a more violent kind emerges. Is it a good thing? Maybe not, but people (especially privileged white people) shouldn’t be surprised when a group that’s had a boot on their neck for centuries finally gets sick of the damn boot and tries to do something about it.
Are some police shootings justified? Probably. It’s difficult to argue that someone shooting at a cop has a good argument for being victims if they are shot in return. But that’s not what we’re talking about.
In 2015, police killed nearly 1000 people across America. 90 of those were unarmed. In recent years, that ratio has held, and about 1 in 10 people killed by police have not been armed. When police are already armed with so much – their authority, their words, their training (both physical and mental), batons, tasers, pepper spray, AND firearms – it’s difficult to justify those situations where someone with no weapons at all is killed. And now, with powerful cameras in almost everyone’s pocket, it’s harder for police to get away with it. Well, at least until it’s time for prosecution. Then they seem to frequently get away with it, video evidence be damned.
And blacks (and other POCs) are disproportionately more likely to be killed in confrontations by police, even moreso when unarmed. This suggests systemic bias. It’s not that unarmed whites aren’t killed by police, but the odds are a far worse for black and Latino citizens.
Of course unrest is going to happen. When people feel oppressed, they’re bound to push back eventually. Instead of denying the oppression, defenders of these shootings should be trying to understand the oppression, and helping to change it. Being privileged isn’t the problem. It’s when the privileged deny their status, and refuse to use their advantages to help improve the common good.
What needs to happen? Better training for police? Fewer weapons? More body cameras? More oversight? Actual prosecution of these incidents?
Probably all of the above, but perhaps the biggest issue is cultural. Police departments often don’t comprise members of the community they police. Many departments aren’t demographically representative of their cities. This was brought to light especially with the events in Ferguson, Missouri, where a majority black city was policed by a majority white force. And that makes a huge difference. People are more likely to treat their fellow citizens as “others” when they have no stake in them.
But there’s got to be more even still. We need to rethink how police departments work. We need to reconsider the level of authority they are entrusted with, and how they are trained to respond. Instead of merely reacting to crime, police departments should put more effort into proactively addressing the causes of crime. And those politicians who appropriate funds for police departments need to understand that simply throwing more armed and badged bodies at a rough neighborhood isn’t likely to improve that neighborhood. There is no one solution to the problem, but much of it requires more effort by our political system. Which in turn requires more effort by voters.
In the next few weeks, I’ll be writing more about this, and I’ll be touching on the legislative aspect of the legal system.
Meanwhile, unarmed people are still being butchered. They deserve to be remembered.
This is an incomplete list, but I want to mention at least a few people who were horribly slaughtered in recent years by those who have been trusted with protecting them. Please remember that part. The police are specifically granted power to – among other things – keep the citizens safe. Instead, they did the opposite, and have appeared to single individuals out for racial reasons, and killed, instead of protected. And thus far, most have not been prosecuted, and those that have been charged have largely been acquitted.
- Dontre Hamilton – No charges filed against police.
- John Crawford III – No charges filed against police.
- Michael Brown – No charges filed against police.
- Ezell Ford – No indictment.
- Dante Parker – No charges filed against police.
- Tanisha Anderson – Ruled a homicide
- Akai Gurley – Police officer convicted, but no jail.
- Eric Garner – No criminal charges against the officers at the scene.
- Tamir Rice – No indictment against officers.
- Rumain Brisbon – No charges filed.
- Jerame Reid – No indictments.
- Eric Harris – Deputy found guilty of manslaughter.
- Walter Scott – Officer indicted and trial set for October.
- Freddie Gray – Six officers charged, two acquitted so far.
- Antonio Zambrano-Montes – No charges filed against the murderers.
- Sandra Bland – Only charge is a single misdemeanor perjury charge.
- Michael Noel – No charges filed.
- Bettie Jones – Civil suit only.
- Keith Childress
Please take some time, click on these links, and learn about these lives snuffed out. The first step for justice for these people is for the public to be aware of what’s happened. Read and learn and speak up.