The Only Way to End Police Violence

The only way to stop cops from killing young, unarmed black men is to convince Americans that their lives truly matter.

Elijah Nouvelage/Getty

Here’s something one is not supposed to say at a time like this, but it’s true and we all know it’s true, so let’s say it: There will be more Eric Garners; more Michael Browns. There will be, it’s sad to say, piles more of these dead, black, male bodies, and dozens or hundreds more white police officers walking away from the inconvenience of having added to the pile, for the simple and obvious reason that our political system and our culture have neither the will nor the capacity to ensure that there won’t be.

This is also usually when we pause to take note of the great racial progress we’ve made in this country over the last two generations, while adding dutifully and ruefully that there is still much more to do. We’ve made progress for sure. But on the criminal justice front, we’ve gone backwards. The harsh sentencing laws passed from the 1970s through the 1990s have seen to it that one out of three black men in America will do some jail time at some point in his life. If Putin did that with one of his ethnic minorities, we’d be calling him a greater monster than Stalin.

The dollar value of a statistical life in the United States is purported to be around $5 million. That’s what safety analysts say. Of course that dollar value, callous as it may seem, is based on certain inputs—a person’s education, her earnings, her contributions to community and society. But if that’s the average, what’s a young black male life worth in the United States? Is it worth $1 million? Maybe $500,000? Michael Brown’s was apparently worth something closer to zero.

This is not going to change in America, at least for many, many years. Ask yourself: What would it take, really, for your average white cop not to see your average black male young adult as a potential threat? Because we can pass all the ex-post facto laws we want, and we can even convict the occasional police officer, which does happen from time to time. But that’s not where the problem starts. The problem starts in that instant of electric mistrust when the cop reaches for his gun, or employs a homicidal chokehold. That moment is beyond the reach of legislation, or of any punishment that arrives after the fact.

So to answer the question of what it would take—well, cops will make different and less deadly decisions in those fateful moments when they no longer reflexively see black males as a priori threatening figures. But there’s so much history and cultural DNA threaded into that reflex that it’s hard to see how it can change.

Which is not to say that we shouldn’t try things. But to me, we should be putting a lot more emphasis on the front end than the back end; that is, on prevention more than punishment. By which I mean, for example, the training, education, and screening of white cops who will be dealing regularly with black citizens.

Back when I was writing about New York City, I once participated in a public forum where I was one of the journalists questioning then-Police Commissioner Howard Safir. One of those big incidents—Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, I can’t remember which, and they happened every few months—had recently taken place. Others asked Safir about after-the-fact approaches—a stronger civilian complaint review board, for example, which had been kicking around at the time, or steeper departmental penalties.

I went in a different direction. I asked Safir whether the NYPD did any kind of racial screening of police academy hopefuls; any battery of psychological tests, say, designed to identify and weed out the potential bad seeds? He didn’t say yes. But he didn’t say no, either. He had no idea! The commissioner—no idea how or whether applicants were screened for racial biases. Now, I don’t know whether any such testing goes on today, but if it doesn’t, it should.

We could also try more integrated police forces. Things are better on that score in many cities than they were 30 years ago, but still woefully out of balance, especially in a city like Ferguson. So there are a few things we can do to try to prevent these tragedies.

But I doubt the political will exists for anything beyond the most transparently cosmetic changes, and at bottom the will is not there because not enough value is attached in American society to young black male lives. If more were, society would never stand for this. If someone out there with a passion for this issue and a couple billion dollars wants to work on a project, maybe it’s just this: Show Americans that young black men don’t have to be either hoodlums or rappers or occasionally actors, that they are just like young white men in their infinite variety, goodness, badness, talent, mediocrity, and decency. When they become simply human to the rest of America, that’s when America will do something to lessen the pile.