The Killing of Unarmed Black Men Is Hurting America’s Image Abroad
Around the world, American diplomats are working to rein in the excesses of authoritarian regimes. Now, however, dictators are pointing out our own extrajudicial killings.
So now it is a therapist lying on the ground, hands in the air, helpless and bleeding beside an autistic kid he tried to help. At least he lived, which is a horrifyingly low bar. Before that it was Philando Castile, then Alton Sterling.
Every time I lay off these grafs for a few weeks, a few days even, a new video appears, a new horror, a new grief. We have come to the point where the last moments of a man’s life have to be live-streamed so that the indignity of being killed for a busted taillight can be believed. Even after so many deaths, the abruptness of each jolts to the core. All those years, all those joys and sorrows, everything that life means is taken in an instant. For what? A toy truck? A traffic infraction? For being black…
As a Foreign Service Officer, I serve our country abroad because I am deeply proud of the ideals it represents. I have lived in fragile states. I have seen lands where entire police forces are corrupt and violent, or where there are no police at all. These are not places you want to live. Respect for and trust in law enforcement, earned by high standards in police conduct, are the cornerstones of peaceful and prosperous societies. In the United States, every day, millions of times over, our police save lives, protect children, keep commerce flowing, and resolve disputes peacefully. That’s not to mention the youth leagues, charity drives, and innumerable other ways they contribute to the fabric of our society. Police are, after all, a reflection of us: a diverse collection of men and women drawn from our communities, paid for by our money. After five of our finest were gunned down by men fueled by despicable anti-police hate in Dallas, then three more in Baton Rouge, our country mourned, as we ever mourn whenever our police are lost in the line of duty. We know that they face dangers so that we do not all have to be cowboys and vigilantes. No matter where you stand on gun rights, our police give us the freedom to not carry weapons wherever we go. When somebody opens fire in a bar, or a movie theater, or at an elementary school, police officers respond. In this era of terrorism and mass murder, we need the protection of our police more than ever.
Which is why when police engage in extrajudicial killings with the regularity that we see in the United States, we have to take a hard look at ourselves. This must stop. Extrajudicial killings have a disproportionate effect on the national psyche. Each is a stain on all of us, and especially on the honor of brave police officers throughout the land. If these killings continue, innumerable good deeds will go overlooked and the basic social contract will break down. I get that in matters of criminal justice there are larger social justice issues at play, structural inequities of the past still ingrained in the our layered local, state and federal systems that leave us with difficult race, gender and class divides. But life is the cardinal value and change must start there.
For these very reasons, the annual State Department Country Reports on Human Rights, mandated by Congress, highlight “Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life” at the very top. Having contributed to many of these reports, in many different countries, I have spent many days in previous assignments listening to the protestations of host country officials. They have told me that their government cannot be held responsible for every bad cop, that the cases are misrepresented, that we are talking about a fraction of the police force and that the actions of a few do not fairly represent the whole picture. As a trained lawyer, I know well that any case can be distinguished on its facts and that nearly every death outside a judicial process can be explained away. Yet as a diplomat, I have told those officials that legal parsing won’t cut it.
So when I see that in a Cleveland park a child with a plastic gun is shot moments after police pull up, or that in the streets of Chicago a 17-year-old is hit with nearly one bullet for every year he lived, or that in Baton Rouge a man is tackled, pinned down by two cops and shot in the chest, after all the shock and the sadness, I inevitably think about how any of these extrajudicial killings would have been described in our Human Rights Report, and the kind of conversations I would have had, if they had occurred in some country other than my own.
I would have approached the host country officials and told them that the United States wants the killings to stop. I would have told them that tools to address the problem are well known and widely available, and in some cases we could assist in providing them: our highly professional police train others around the world, to good effect. I would have discussed the need for refined vetting and recruitment strategies, for advanced community policing techniques, for mandatory human rights training, continuous and at all levels, and for rigorous prosecution of abuses. I would have talked about reform to rules of engagement and described how, in Afghanistan, I saw young U.S. soldiers, under daily attack, refrain from firing at hostile gestures, movements, or even armed combatants in order to minimize the chances of civilian casualties. I would have said that standards for the use of deadly force against your own citizens can’t be lower than those applied by your soldiers in a war zone. These are the reforms and best practices that need to be pushed into every corner of the country, I would have said, and pushed over and over until the number of extrajudicial killings hits zero. And if the host country officials were to have dismissed me, told me that our Human Rights Report was not credible and did not represent the problem accurately… I would have replied: no excuses. Fix it.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the United States Department of State or the United States Government.
Dante Paradiso is a career Foreign Service Officer, a lawyer, and the great-grandson of a New York City police officer.