A person killed by the police should not be controversial; it should always be mourned if we call our legal system any type of justice. There should never be debates about whether the person who is now deceased was at fault. If our justice system was fair and equitable, we would be saddened whenever a human does not get the opportunity to present their case in the court of law. Regardless of the circumstances. Regardless of the color of their skin. And regardless of the reality that even a fair trial in court can fall short of true justice.
The first time I witnessed a troublesome police encounter, I was a teenager. When I was nineteen years old, I relocated to Mantua, a predominantly Black neighborhood in Philadelphia to participate in a faith-based program similar to AmeriCorps. One sunny day I was walking home and witnessed at least ten cop cars parked on the corner of my intersection, lights flashing. I wasn’t fully clear what was happening, but a man was handcuffed in the middle of the group. Suddenly, I heard one of the officers yell out, “Wrong guy! We got the wrong guy!” The man in handcuffs was not the individual the police were actually trying to apprehend.
At the same time, police were public officers that looked out for my safety. I had been a jogger since I was a high school sophomore. This same year, I found ways to run regularly around my new city and neighborhood. One chilly Saturday morning in February, I was jogging back to my home and turned on to my Mantua street. I was returning from the direction of nearby Drexel and University of Pennsylvania campuses. I was pulled over by police almost immediately for jogging into a Black neighborhood as a safety check. When I told them I lived down the street, they shook their heads in my direction and pulled off without any further questions.
A few years later I moved to Chicago, and worked as a community organizer upon my arrival. My first assignment was a police brutality case in a Black South Side neighborhood. This was in 2003, but the facts were not unlike those in the Trayvon Martin case nine years later. A preteen boy was stopped by the police because he was exchanging a package of Skittles with an older relative. The police assumed it was drugs. When the child was being stopped and frisked, his family rushed out of the house to find out what was going on. Mom, grandma (who was in her seventies), and siblings, including the youngest, were all pepper sprayed and scuffed up. Fortunately, this situation ended in a rather large settlement rather than death, but it never made the news.
Statistics can be made to say whatever we want them to say, but the hostile, regular interactions between police and people of color that do not end in death are not included in the figures cited about police violence.
The policing system simply works differently for White people than it does for people of color. The inner workings of the justice system is far outside of my personal experience or professional expertise, but many experts have written about the systemic racism in our legal system. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander is often cited because it is an excellent place to start reading about the subject. What I do know is what I have seen myself.
My husband is Black, and he is pulled over while driving much more frequently than I have ever been. Sometimes he is dismissed quickly once the officer sees his graying beard and hears the Christian radio station playing over the sound system. But other times it is not so simple. A few years ago, my husband was late returning from a friend’s house after he texted to tell me he was about to walk to his car to drive home. When he was more than thirty minutes late, I started calling. His phone rang and rang as I called repeatedly. It turns out he was seated on a sidewalk in handcuffs alongside his best friend as he noticed my repeated calls coming in. He had spent his day watching Sunday afternoon football and was detained while walking from his friend’s house to his vehicle. The police claimed he and his friend fit the description of robbery suspects, despite the fact that my husband was wearing lime green pants and neon blue shoes. Typically, a robber would prefer to wear a non-descript outfit to commit a crime.
Just in this last month, my husband was detained for 45 minutes and falsely accused of stealing $200. He occasionally fills in for a company located inside a federal building when they are short staffed. On this particular day, he was stopped by security after leaving the break room. Because he was in a federal building, the FBI ran his background and questioned him extensively. The interrogation ended when the money was found by the person that accused him. He had misplaced it. My husband did not receive an apology.
The policing system does not treat people equally. My dad and brothers are not stopped by the police with regularity. Although I am sure they have not gone through life completely escaping traffic tickets, police interactions were rare and never once worthy of household discussion. My dad now notices that the security guard at Menards stops my husband to check his receipt if my dad walks a few steps behind him and not beside him. My dad never gets stopped in the hardware store for a receipt check when he is alone. On the rare occasions I myself am pulled over by the police, the stop often functions as a well-being check. And I can’t remember the last time I even received a ticket.
If you find police shootings justifiable, I don’t understand your perspective. A person died. The power dynamic is unequal, even when the ‘suspect’ is armed. In many urban or poor communities, the police force is militarized.
George Floyd was finally a sympathetic figure for White Americans because he was face-down on the ground and handcuffed. I chose not watch the video. I stopped watching videos of people being killed by police after Philando Castile was shot and killed in Minnesota in 2016. That one hit way too close to home, and I could easily imagine myself being a witness to that situation with my own husband; just like Philando’s girlfriend had to see his execution. I lived in the St. Paul/Minneapolis area briefly. The streets in which these murders took place did not feel unfamiliar to me, either.
The summer prior, Sandra Bland died in police custody. Her family does not accept the official explanation of her death. She grew up in a suburb neighboring my own childhood home, and her high school competed against mine in sports. She felt like a person I could have crossed paths with during the course of daily life. These types of events do not happen to strangers far away. They happen to all the Black and brown people we know. We, White people, just do not always hear it because the non-deadly but still egregious and unfair accusations never make the news. A mostly White segment of the population finds it too easy to justify unjust police arrests whenever the victim status is slightly questionable — ie; not face-down on the ground and in handcuffs. And why should we be told any of these stories by the people we do know when we are prone to try to justify the policing system, only adding insult to injury?
Admittedly, I do not have relationships with police officers and believe the job is likely high stress and trauma-producing. I worked in a residential treatment center for a few years; a type of institution that polices young children who come from less than ideal family situations. The home felt like a powder-keg about to explode on the bad days when the kids were escalated. If that experience was a small fraction of what policing can be like, then it is emotionally intense work. The police officer I know best was a former employee who resigned his job with the financial institution to become a cop. He is a Haitian-American who is one of the most patient people I have ever met. I believe the character of the person in any given role is the biggest determinant of outcome in any specific situation, whether it be a work project, product, or policing. I also believe accidents do happen, events get misconstrued under the influence of adrenaline, and mistakes are made. But none of those truths negate the presence of inequities in the way law enforcement operates in the United States.
I do not know whether defunding the police is the answer. I do not like to speak on issues that I have not educated myself thoroughly on, and I do not know the nuances of such proposals. I know it sounds as controversial as it has become. The absence of police will not bring peace. The absence of police will not bring justice, either. It will only bring a new form of justice, and these forms may not include trial by jury or due process. Our system might be highly flawed, but sometimes its checks and balances gets things right. Both character of individual officers and opportunity for Black and brown people matters.
I do know that many, many tense situations can be de-escalated. I have been in “high risk” situations during the course of decades of life, and I have de-escalated situations myself — unarmed and as a petite White woman. I have also witnessed police de-escalate situations, even when working with mentally ill people. It can be done, and should be done much more often and much more intentionally. I also know many communities in which policing is most troublesome have been deliberately dis-invested over decades and reinvestment is necessary.
Yesterday, Ma’khia Bryant was shot four times by the police nearly to the moment the verdict in George Floyd’s murder was read. Justice is still far away. The police department was quick to release the video because she had a knife. She was in a typical high school fight similar to ones I witnessed as a suburban teenager. Most people do not die by police gunfire in high school fights. Most are de-escalated by a bystander or authority figure. I am tired of White people debating whether a police killing was justified. We should never try to come up with legitimate explanations for any situation resulting in a person’s death. A life was lost.
Consider a person’s humanity; they are all more than just hashtags.