Caught on Tape: Police Violence and America’s Awakening
Since I last wrote, several new incidents have added to the ever-increasing list of unarmed black people killed by the police, once again thrusting the issue into the national spotlight.
In North Charleston, South Carolina, Walter Scott was shot eight times by Officer Michael Slager as he was fleeing his vehicle following a traffic stop for a broken taillight. Slager was charged with murder following the release of a video of the incident showing Scott retreating as he was gunned down and Slager planting his Taser by the body. The same day, another officer in South Carolina, Justin Craven, was charged with a felony for shooting and killing Ernest Satterwhite in his own driveway in February of last year.
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, Eric Harris was shot by Reserve Deputy Robert Bates – who was apparently a wealthy donor who “paid to play” as an officer – when he mistakenly pulled his gun instead of his Taser while attempting to subdue Harris. In the video of the incident, another officer can be heard saying “shut the fuck up” and “fuck your breath” after Harris said that he couldn’t breathe. Harris died from his injuries shortly thereafter, and Bates has been charged with manslaughter.
And, in a collision of my past and present hometowns, Atlanta Hawks forward Thabo Sefolosha was arrested and had his leg broken (and season ended) by the NYPD after he “failed to disperse” following an incident in which fellow NBA player Chris Copeland was stabbed outside a New York nightclub. Although he escaped with his life, Sefolosha’s injuries were left untreated overnight, and video of the incident shows police exercising unnecessary force against him, while eyewitness and video accounts contradict the official police story of what happened.
The regularity of these instances is finally beginning to pull the wool from our eyes, exposing the dark side of law and order in our society. Their disproportionate impact on African Americans has exposed the systematic bias of the justice system and the implicit bias of officers who choose to use deadly force. Video evidence has exposed deception on the part of police to justify their actions and cover their own asses. Reports from the Justice Department have exposed the financial incentives for aggressive policing and criminalization of the populace. And official response to protestors has exposed the excessive militarization of local police forces.
Of course, this information is not new, especially for black people, whose entire history in this country has been characterized by institutional control. It has been happening all along, hidden just out of sight, rendered literally invisible by the fact that police aren’t even required to keep or report statistics surrounding officer-involved shootings to the FBI. The information we do have is voluntarily reported, and thus almost certainly can only provide an extremely conservative estimate of what is actually going on. But even this does not paint a rosy picture. American police killed more people last month alone than the entire British police force has in the past 115 years (a difference that is staggering even after adjusting for population size). And of those, young black men are 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by the police than their white counterparts.
What becomes especially troubling is the fact that officers are rarely held accountable for their roles in civilian deaths, which is part of what makes these latest incidents so unusual. Police officers are almost never prosecuted, even in situations in which the necessity for deadly force is dubious at best. Prosecutors have a close working relationship with their local police forces, and aggressively pursuing charges against an officer could irreparably damage that relationship, potentially costing them their job further down the line. Furthermore, the threshold for police discretion in using lethal force is very low, with “feeling threatened” oftentimes being an adequate justification, even in cases where the other party turns out to be unarmed. It also helps when the other party isn’t there to tell their side of the story, as juries tend to believe the testimony of police officers to be reliable. But claims of feeling threatened are extremely subjective and thus subject to personal and racial bias. A police officer is probably much quicker to resort to deadly force when a black person is involved, as evidenced by these white people who managed not to get killed.
However, people tend to view these situations as very black and white, where the officer is good and the victim is bad, regardless of any other context. They justify the execution of citizens without due process because “he was a criminal” or because “he shouldn’t have run from the police.” But a rap sheet doesn’t negate your humanity, and the penalty for fleeing is not death.
The presence of video footage and the prevalence of cell phones with recording capability is a big part of the reason that we are finally beginning to take notice of police violence and misconduct. What once flew below the radar is now out there for everyone to see. We can now see the brutality firsthand, and, crucially, we can expose the inconsistencies in police testimony where before we likely would have taken their word for it. Just look at this Huffington Post article about what the news article about Walter Scott would have looked like if the video had not been released. Needless to say, this creates a major credibility problem for the police, calling into question every official story about the circumstances surrounding interactions in which lethal force was “justified.”
Does this mean that body cameras for police officers are the solution? There is a substantial amount of support for this measure. And while it would probably help, it’s not a silver bullet. In fact, there’s no guarantee that that would do anything at all. After all, there are videos of John Crawford III, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice being killed. In fact the only reason Officer Slager is being charged is the pure egregiousness of his actions by shooting Walter Scott in the back and planting a Taser on him (and let’s not forget, Slager hasn’t been found guilty of anything yet). Body cameras or no, it’s still a difficult task to convict a police officer. And body cameras would do nothing to curtail the role that racial bias plays on when one determines that apprehension is impossible and lethal force necessary.
Perhaps, as Ta-Nehisi Coates suggests, the bigger problem is our overreliance on police and incarceration generally. We have people with guns who are trained to deal with violent criminals tackling issues like mental illness, drug abuse, and poverty that are probably best left to social workers. Perhaps all this exposure has created more questions than answers. But at least it has woken people up and opened some eyes. After all, once you take the red pill, you can never go back.
Image via galleryhip.com