By Alan Bean
Police officers in America don’t think it’s okay to gun down unarmed people, regardless of race. If that’s so (and I believe it is) why are so many young black males dying in police-related incidents?
To address this question you must understand a couple of things. Gun violence in the United States is incomparably worse than in almost any western democracy you can name; and the vast majority of that violence is perpetrated by the residents of extremely poor, extremely segregated and extremely unstable neighborhoods.
Black males are dying from gun violence at six times the rate of white males, and it is almost always at the hands of other black males. That said, black-on-black crime does not give police officers cart blanche to gun down unarmed people who represent no immediate threat.
Nor is it helpful to discuss the terrible gun violence tearing apart our poorest neighborhoods without inquiring into the social, economic and historical roots of the mayhem. People aren’t dying from gun play because black people are inherently violent or because Hip Hop culture glorifies violence. The vast majority of people who live in high-poverty communities are hard-working and law abiding. But when jobs, opportunity and hope are sucked out of a community, an underground economy rooted in drugs and prostitution takes over and bad things happen.
Drug dealing and street gangs don’t translate naturally into high rates of gun violence. Most gang members hate the bloodshed that surrounds them and wish it would stop. Most gangs don’t kill anyone in an average year. Most of the killing is driven by a handful of psychopaths who are exhilarated by gun violence and the terror it creates. Not everyone involved in gun violence is a psychopathic killer, mind you, but the madness can be traced to a relative handful of individuals.
As one would expect, high poverty, high-crime, high-violence neighborhoods receive more than their share of police attention, but that fact itself doesn’t explain the high number of police-related deaths in America. As a recent article in the Economist pointed out, police in Britain hardly ever kill anyone, and they are rarely killed. In 2013, 30 police officers died from gun violence in the United States. That’s not nearly as many deaths as consumers of American television might have anticipated, but it’s enough to inject high anxiety into cop culture
Police officers who spend much of their time on the mean streets easily imagine that everybody is gunning for them. It isn’t true, but this fear becomes institutionalized and the strong-arm tactics often employed by highly militarized police departments exacerbate the problem by spreading fear and mistrust through troubled communities. The police are viewed as an occupying force that has little interest in protecting or serving the community.
When an unarmed young man like Mike Brown is gunned down by a police officer, his friends and family automatically assume that the killing was premeditated and motivated by racial animus.
In most cases, neither assumption is accurate. Racism is an ugly feature of American life, and police culture is hardly immune from its toxic influence. A recent survey found that the international media outlets, almost unanimously, have interpreted recent events in Ferguson as evidence that America still has a profound race problem. We might not like to think of our country in those terms; but that’s how we appear from the outside.
That said, you will almost never see a police officer discharge his weapon out of simple racial malice.
Most police shootings come with a backstory. Traumatized officers react irrationally when they are threatened sufficiently. PTSD isn’t just a feature of military culture. Officers snap. They go off. It’s wrong, and when it happens there must be consequences. But you almost never see a white officer take a pot shot at an unarmed black male just for the hell of it.
Racial profiling is part of the problem. Although black males are associated with gun violence in the popular mind, the vast majority of these kids are non-violent by temperament, training and conscious choice. When you live by the gun, you die by the gun and at-risk kids know it. But faced with a threatening situation, white officers easily fall victim to their own biases.
Race is part of the problem, but only a part.
A recent Gallup poll revealed that 59% of whites have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the police, compared with only 37% of blacks. A full 25% of blacks and 12% of whites have little or no confidence in the police. Put all these numbers together and its clear that law enforcement has a public relations problem. Not all white people support the police without question; and not all black people believe the cops are out to get them; but the racial divide is pretty clear.
Earlier this week, I attended a public meeting in Dallas related to police shootings. Dallas County may soon create an independent board to look into these incidents, and DA Craig Watkins, Sheriff Lupe Valdez, and Police Chief David Brown used the troubles in Ferguson to address the local situation.
Watkins and Brown are black and both men grew up in Dallas, so they have experienced racial profiling up close and personal. But they also share a deep appreciation for the challenges facing law enforcement, and neither man believes that police shootings result from simple racial animus.
The meeting was contentious, occasionally lurching in the direction of chaos. Family members who had lost children and siblings in police-related shootings came to the meeting looking for answers and some long-belated justice. Some were quiet and respectful; others addressed the public officials on stage as if they were personally responsible for the problem. If you asked these grieving family members if their child was gunned down simply for being black, most would have responded, “Hell, yeah!”
This reaction is natural. A mother who has identified the bullet-strewn body of a darling child in the morgue can be forgiven for feeling this way. That’s the way it feels, no question.
But when activists leap to the same conclusion, I have less sympathy. Feelings are running high in the wake of the tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri, and the ham-handed, aggressive and often bizarre response of law enforcement has only fanned the flames.
But Mike Brown wasn’t shot simply because he was black. Racism played a role in the scenario, but when all the facts are out we will likely be able to understand the officer’s tragic over-reaction as well as we understand the sorrow of Mr. Brow’s family. Regardless of what motivated Darren Wilson to discharge his weapon repeatedly at an unarmed man, the color of Mike Brown’s skin wasn’t the primary instigator.
Race played a role in this incident, but it was one factor among many. If Mike Brown was a white kid, he would probably be alive today; but being black is only part of the reason he is dead.
We need to consider the role of racism and ignorance play in police culture; events in Ferguson make that painfully clear. America has a racial problem and we have a gun problem. In Ferguson, Missouri, those problems converged in a tragic way. But let’s consider all the issues together because they are part of the same toxic phenomenon.