Why Killer Cops Walk Free
When I was a white, I viewed the police as a friend. But now that I’m a minority, my view has changed.
I know that to many I still look like a white guy. However, since I’m of Arab heritage and Muslim, I morphed into a minority in the post-9/11 world. After all, white people aren’t racially profiled nor called to answer for the worst of their community. Only minorities are. Thus, I’m a minority, and I view the police through that prism.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t consider the police an enemy. I just no longer give them the benefit of the doubt. When I hear their version of the facts, I now require corroborating evidence. And I can just as easily believe the version of events proffered by a defendant or other witnesses.
Being a minority, I have also become much more sensitive to the fact that the police can kill you without good reason. And while exact numbers are hard to come by, recent estimates are that the police have killed about 400 people per year over the last decade. Our police kill more people each year than those killed by gun violence in countries like the United Kingdom, Germany and Australia.
I would predict that few have issues with the police shooting dangerous criminals who are truly threatening them or the public at large. Regardless if we are white or a minority, we want the police to protect us. In fact, we pay them to do just that.
But the problem arises when we see the police kill a person in circumstances that shock our conscience. In these instances, our sense of right and wrong demands that the police officer be held criminally responsible for his actions.
However, this happens very infrequently. Why? In large part, this is due to a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision that held a police officer can legally use deadly force if the officer has an “objectively reasonable fear” that someone will be killed or suffer serious bodily injury. This ruling, by design, insulates police officers from criminal liability because of the unique, life-threatening challenges of being in law enforcement.
In fact, many legal experts believe that Darren Wilson, the police officer who reportedly shot Michael Brown, will not be convicted of a crime. Indeed, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon acknowledged that Wilson might not even be charged with one.
The Brown case would be far from the most outrageous incident involving a police officer not being criminally charged for killing an unarmed person. In 2012, for example, Brian Claunch, a wheelchair-bound double amputee living in a group home in Houston, became unruly. After the cops arrived, Claunch, who had a history of mental illness, verbally threatened them from his wheelchair and waved a shiny object—a ballpoint pen. After Claunch refused to drop the pen, one of the officers shot him in the head, killing him.
Is it shocking the officer wasn’t charged? Yes. Unexpected? No. As The Texas Observer noted, between 2007 and 2012, Houston police officers shot and killed 109 people and injured another 111. How many of these shootings were deemed unjustified? Zero.
Claunch was white. I mention his race only because white people should, too, be concerned with being shot by law enforcement. In fact, the police have killed more whites than black people in recent years. But those numbers don’t paint the full picture. On a percentage basis, blacks are being shot and killed by the police in much higher numbers.
For example, as Mother Jones noted, between 2004 and 2008, Oakland police officers shot 37 people. How many were black? All of them. And even though in 40 percent of the cases the suspect was unarmed, not one police officer was charged with a crime. And Oakland is not unique here—similar numbers can be found in other big cities.
Consequently, few will be surprised that a recent poll found blacks and whites view the police differently. While 56 percent of whites had a great deal of confidence in the police, only 37 percent of blacks felt the same way.
Still, Americans overall are apparently viewing the police in more negative terms. A 2009 Gallup poll found that 63 percent of Americans viewed the police as honest and ethical. (The peak being 68 percent in 2001 shortly after 9/11.) But a Gallup poll conducted at the end of 2013 found that number has now fallen to 54 percent, the lowest number since the 1990s.
What may be legal might not always be right. While the police may walk away scot-free, we still remember what they did. And I would predict that if we see more cases like Michael Brown or Eric Garner—the unarmed man killed in July after NYPD officers placed him in an illegal chokehold—the more negatively the police will be viewed by everyone going forward.
This poses a very real policing problem. Police officials will tell you that one of the most important components in combatting crime is building relationships within the community they are policing. How can the police do that if the community views them as dishonest, or even dangerous?
A good move toward rebuilding trust would be affixing cameras to police officers so that the public can see the events that lead to the use of deadly force. Police could also do more community relationship building by interacting with minority communities now—not after there is an incident. And if a police officer is clearly at fault, police chiefs should not blindly defend that person.
Ironically, while relations between the police and minority communities might be strained, we now share something in common: Neither of us wants to be defined by our worst examples.