I’ve been told by a black friend that I, as a white person, can’t know the fear that permeates the mind of a black man when they are stopped by a cop, knowing that they can be harassed, arrested or killed simply for the crime of being black. That’s true. I can’t.
The truth is, it does happen that innocent black men are sometimes harassed, arrested and even killed by white cops. According to USA today, there were an average of 96 instances of white cops killing black men per year between 2005 & 2012. Author Jim Fisher states that 95% of all officer involved shootings are labeled “Justifiable Homicide” as when the victim had a gun, knife or some other weapon. Fisher believes that number is artificially high. Let’s assume that instead of 95% of those cases being justified, only 75% are and lets apply that to the USA Today stats. That would mean that there are 24 black men unjustly killed by police each year. That number is no doubt inflated, but let’s use it for discussion purposes.
Let’s put that number in perspective. In 2011, according to the FBI, approximately 2,200 black men were murdered in the United States by other black men. If you take that number and compare it to the inflated number from above, 24, the ratio of black men killed by other black men vs. black men killed by white cops would be approximately 95 to 1. That means for every black man murdered by the police, another 95 are murdered by other black men.
But we don’t see 95 Ferguson, Missouris burning around the country, do we? No. Indeed, the reason why Ferguson is so newsworthy is that it is an example of a Man bites Dog story rather than Dog bites Man.
Now, as another friend mentioned, getting shot by the police is not the same as getting shot by a guy in your neighborhood:
You can't compare the two! If you run into trouble with anyone else, you can fight, you can run, you can pull out a gun and defend yourself, your friends can help you.... when you are facing a cop, you can't do any of those things. Almost anything you do or say can be justification for them to use extreme force against you.
Most of that may indeed be true, but unlike the guy trying to take your lunch money or worse, cops are in the business of trying to protect people and the community. Every society needs a police force. In addition, there are community boards, inspectors general, internal affairs divisions – and sometimes even the US Justice Department – that look into every police shooting in this country. And beyond the institutional checks in place there are ubiquitous camera phone videos as well as plaintiff’s attorneys who represent the families of the dead.
As a result of all of this, cops often find themselves under a microscope like no other time in American history. But the truth is, none of what cops do is done in a vacuum, and what is seen on tape is often the final throes of a situation that has been playing out (and maybe escalating) over many seconds or minutes or even hours – The Rodney King video being a perfect example. Cops often are called upon to make life or death decisions in the blink of an eye. Every time they stop a car for a burnt tail light or are called to a domestic disturbance or see someone who seems to be acting strangely, they don’t know for sure what the outcome is going to be. But that’s their job.
Nonetheless, they do those jobs understanding the danger and the landscape they are working in. And that landscape sometimes breeds heightened caution. Black men make up 6% of the US population, but, according to the FBI are responsible for more than 50% of the murders. Black men make up 6% of the US population but according to the Census bureau are arrested for 38% of all violent crimes. Those facts exist, whether people want to acknowledge them or not. And that is the reality of the world police operate in, one that sees an average of 65 cops murdered each year and an additional 60 who die in the course of doing their jobs. Together those numbers can sometimes make for volatile, deadly circumstances, particularly in largely black communities like Ferguson, MO.
Years ago comedian Chris Rock did a great bit called “How not to get your ass kicked by the police!” It included such suggestions as “Obey the law”, “Be polite” and “Get a white friend”. As funny as the comedy piece was, there was a great truth about it. It reminded me of when I used to work as a manager at a restaurant and I would sometimes overhear young patrons complain that they didn’t get this job or that job because they were being discriminated against because of the way they looked. Occasionally I would need to interview high school or college students for a job as hostess or waiter. These applicants, largely privileged white kids, might come in with tattoos, wrinkled clothes, orange hair and with an overall unkempt look about them. And invariably they wouldn’t get the job. Usually it had much to do with how they looked. Here was the problem. I had one hour to interview X number of kids. Now, had I had the opportunity to spend an hour with each, getting to know their life story, by the time I got to know the real him or her I might have realized they were the greatest kid in the world and hired them. But that wasn’t reality. I had less than 10 minutes with each and I didn’t have the luxury of getting to know the “real them”. So I took in what I could, a big part of which was recognizing how they presented and comported themselves when they were applying for a job. I’m sure that I missed out on hiring some great kids, and that if I’d have only gotten to know their “real me” I would have recognized them for the superstar they were… but that wasn’t life in our restaurant and it’s not life on the street.
Cops have limited resources, information, time and sometimes have to make life and death decisions in split seconds, often amidst chaos. The reality is however that while being black is not a crime, crime statistics suggest that blacks will come into contact with law enforcement officers more often than others. And, again, while being black is not a crime, getting into a scuffle with police is not necessarily a good choice in most situations. Being belligerent to police is rarely a good choice in most situations, even if you’re in the right. Being uncooperative with police is rarely a good choice in most situations even if you suspect that you were stopped for DWB or Driving While Black. Cops often have limited time to figure out very complicated, chaotic and sometimes dangerous situations, both for themselves and others. They don’t always have the luxury of spending enough time with a young man to discover that “He was a good boy, he just fell in with the wrong crowd”. In dangerous situations, and those which can escalate to that point quickly, it’s probably always a good idea to do what one can to reduce the level of uncertainty and volatility and report any irregularities or abuse later. We don’t yet know the exact circumstances surrounding the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. But we’ve been told Brown and his friend were walking in the middle of the street amidst traffic. We’ve been told there was a scuffle and a gunshot may have been fired. And we can infer that Brown was likely concerned about getting arrested for a crime he had just committed. Finally we know that Michael Brown, a young black man is dead from the gun of Darren Wilson, a white police officer. That is all we know. None of those facts tell us what went on a week ago. After everything is known perhaps there will be grounds for taking action against Daren Wilson, and perhaps not. Today however, just as every day of the last week, the rioting that has occurred has done nothing to change any of the facts and has only succeeded in destroying the property of people who provide services in the community and in the long run making matters worse by for the people who live in Michael Brown’s neighborhood.
None of this suggests that rouge cops with chips on their shoulders and a bad attitude don’t exist. They do. Nor should any of it suggest that there are not truly innocent black victims of police brutality… There are, and more and more we’re seeing it on video. But like the Man bites Dog story, thankfully they are the exception rather than the rule. Most officers don’t sign up to be thugs. Most are trying to provide a service to a community, most do so heroically, often in extraordinarily chaotic and dangerous situations. Sometimes those situations turn deadly for either the cop or the perpetrator or, sometimes, an innocent person. But that is the nature of life, anywhere and everywhere. Police work is imperfect, being carried out by imperfect people in what are by definition trying circumstances. But if the concern is the save innocent black lives, to make the lives of black Americans better, the place to focus attention is not on the police with Michael Brown as the poster child, but rather on the communities and environments that have been the source of half of America’s murderers and murder victims every year for decades.