Saturday, October 11, 2014

Police shootings and bigotry

Within the last few weeks there has been a good deal of news reporting about a shooting in Utah where a young man was carrying a decorative sword for cosplay while walking around a mall and was shot by police very quickly after they tried to stop him.  The police say he lunged at them with the sword, at least some witnesses say he was actually walking away from the police when they shot him.  The family says that based on their evidence and autopsy report the police shooting seems unjustified and have suggested that racism somehow played into the police decision to kill their son.  The evidence is apparently complicated by at least seemingly contradictory witness reports.  I don't have any real knowledge of the case beyond what is in the newspaper, so I don't want to take any sides in the issue.  Certainly the case shows that trust in a community between the black community and the police department can break down quickly.  But I wanted to discuss the idea of racism more broadly because people seem to react to the issue as if the only possible way for the police to be racist would be for them to be some sort of evil monsters and since the police aren't monsters then they aren't racist.  Life just isn't that simple.  Racism takes both overt and covert forms and both kinds kill.

Before I get into that I want to break down a little bit more of why I have sympathy for the police in many situation where they kill someone on accident that they wish afterwards they hadn't.  Unfortunately there are many criminals out there who would rather kill a cop than get caught.  For whatever reason this desperation and lack of moral proportion comes into existence, it means that police can be killed by people who they have no relationship with and sometimes when, from the police officers perspective, the encounter with the criminal may not give them any obvious warning of impending violence.  If a police officer stops a desperate criminal during a routine traffic stop to tell them that their tail light was out the police officer can become a target without warning.  Because of this, the rules regarding when you are allowed to kill someone tend to be different for police.

A normal citizen in many jurisdictions has to be fairly certain that they need to kill someone to defend themselves before they are legally justified.  A normal citizen may be required to try to de escalate the situation or flee.  A normal citizen might be required to not use deadly force if only their property is in danger but not their physical well being.  Just guessing that you might be in danger because someone might be drawing a weapon isn't enough of a reason to kill them.  But that is often how it works for the police.  Subject to many training routines and rules and regulations police are often trained to kill people with little provocation just based on the risk that a suspect might be about to attack them.  All of that risk is calculated in split second decisions.  Therefore, tragic mistakes happen on a semi routine basis.  Its part of the reason why cap guns have orange tips on them these days.  With the old ones it was too easy for cops to kill little kids because the cap guns looked like the real thing.  Its a little bit like when someone with PTSD has a violent episode- the fear reactions in the brain can take over resulting in tragedies that are hard to understand afterwards.

Now lets get back to racism.  There are two kinds.  One is overt racism, where the racist individual is openly hateful or disdainful of different racial group and isn't particularly ashamed of it.  These kinds of people can become violent and oppressive just because they are that filled with hate.  There is another kind of racism where the racist individual is conscious that open racism is a bad thing, but still treats people of other ethnic groups poorly based on the assumption that the other group is just inherently bad in some way.  An example would be a judge a few years back that denied giving an interracial couple a marriage license because he "knew" that inter racial marriages were inherently short lived.  This covert racism probably exists in almost every single person who grows up in a culture with a history of racism.  I can still remember the two incidents that helped me became aware of it in myself.

I was with my family and we were walking around the Washington DC area at in the evening or at night.  A group of beggars lined the sidewalk- all black men.  My father gave some change to one of them as he briskly walked past and then mentioned how he was fairly certain he smelled alcohol on the man's breath.  Its been so long I can't remember for sure but I think my parents may have even coached us before we walked past that we were in a potentially dangerous situation.  Fast forward years from then when our family was visiting England and were walking around in the city streets.  We walked past a group of black boys or men and I felt my mind preparing to be afraid of them as potential criminals, but then something about the atmosphere- perhaps their refined sounding British accents- that threw off my sub-mental triggers and I didn't have the fear response I was accustomed to.  I suddenly realized that I had been experiencing a racist fear of black men.  I had never intended to be afraid, it was just part of the cultural world I inherited.  Covert racism poisons your mind when  you are trying to be a good person.  Practically anyone who lives in a culture where racism is part of the history is going to have a certain amount of this poison in their system.  Without intentionally trying to become aware of it and get rid of it this racism poison won't go anywhere just because you have good intentions.  So I openly acknowledge that to my shame I've got a little bit of the racist in me.  Now that I'm aware of it I try to root it out of myself whenever I can identify it.

Now lets flip back to the perspective of any cop facing a black man.  Psychologically, I've read, carrying a gun is a good way to fool yourself into thinking the people around you are also carrying guns.  Cops, because they carry guns, are likely to mistakenly think that others around them are carrying too.  Once they make that mistake, police have to decide in a split second how dangerous they think a suspect is based on their behavior.  And, most police officers in America are going to likely have irrational fears about black men being inherently dangerous.  As a result- we can expect that in tragic situations police can kill unarmed black men based on mistakes of perception of whether a black man is armed and aggressive.  These mistakes of perception can happen in just split seconds, leading to a dead man on the ground a few moments later.  And the police officers don't have to be evil monsters to make that sort of mistake.  They just have to be human.  Granted, some evil monsters do manage to become police officers and act out intentional violence on the community around them.  But in a society that condemns open racism, the accidental or "covert" racism will be more common by far and still kill people just as dead as if they were lynched by the KKK.  So the next time that you hear speculation on whether or not a police shooting was motivated by racism- realize that it might be true even if it wasn't intentional.  That being said, the police are supposed to be trained to minimize accidental killings and if they let their fears overwhelm their training they should be held responsible.  But these situations are frequently anything but black and white.

No comments: