Justice is often determined by the victim’s race
In America, police shootings occur regardless of an officer’s race. For example, Black cops are no less likely to fatally shoot Black people than white cops. Despite that, Black people are still 3.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white people. The way cops are trained, the secrecy among them, and the protections granted to them via their contracts have created a culture that is based on fear of the general public and a lack of accountability. Unless, of course, the victim is white and the cop is Black. Then, it seems, accountability becomes a factor.
As I was reading a study titled, “Resolution of apparent paradoxes in the race-specific frequency of use-of-force by police” published in Nature, it reminded me of an article I read while I was in Louisiana working on recovery efforts after hurricane Katrina. In the article, Jarvis DeBerry wrote, “The Katrina-era atrocities and cover-ups carried out by the New Orleans Police Department show that black officers had no higher regard for the lives of black civilians than their other colleagues on the force. Black officers were among those who killed unarmed pedestrians and among those who kept mum about the crimes. Black New Orleanians weary of police aggression must wonder if there’s anyone on the force to whom they can turn, anyone they can trust not to keep them on their knees.”
I’ll never forget the sinking feeling I felt reading DeBerry’s words. Police in America are an extension of the white power structure put in place to protect property over people. Knowing the sordid history of police, slave patrols, the profit motive, and witnessing state-sanctioned police brutality more times than I care to remember, I was again floored by how cruel our law enforcement apparatus continued to be. I remember thinking there was no bottom. That was 19 years ago.
What happened in New Orleans made certain things clear to me. The prejudicial and discriminatory training that paints non-white populations in a negative light (e.g., using statistics without proper context) makes people heartless towards one another. That ruthlessness becomes even more prevalent with the suggestion that a badge makes one superior to others in any way. It’s almost uncanny to think any person of color would buy into it.
But they do.
Watching the Derek Chauvin trial brings to mind all of the issues I’ve discussed since hurricane Katrina about how police are trained, the harm third-party trainers do, and the culture of “Us Vs. Them” that’s present in every police department across the country. Cops have fallen victim to the propaganda of police unions that are run by racist white men. The same hate mongers who blather about the non-existent “war on cops” screech unfounded fears with repetitive anti-civilian rhetoric leaving cops going to work thinking the public is their enemy.
Especially non-white portions of the population.
The over-policing of minority communities is largely based on these same discriminatory ideas and practices. The seemingly growing militarized presence in Black communities is built on the premise that Black people are somehow more of a threat than other groups using racist tropes that paint them as savages; brutes; thugs. Policing in America overlooks the oppressive systems that create an environment that forces many people to commit crimes of desperation and participate in civil disobedience just to survive.
While those systems impact other communities of color and sometimes poor white communities, no groups are impacted more than those they were created for. Black and Indigenous people.
When Black Cops Kill White People
On July 15, 2017, Mohamed Noor, a Somali-American Minneapolis Police officer, shot and killed Justine Damond, a 40-year-old Australian-American woman. Noor was charged on March 20, 2018, with second-degree manslaughter and third-degree murder. The charges were upgraded to second-degree intentional murder and Noor was convicted in April 2019, of third-degree murder and manslaughter. In June 2019, Noor was sentenced to 12.5 years in prison.
In July 2017, Derrick Stafford, a Black 33-year-old deputy marshall in Marksville, Louisiana, was sentenced to 40 years without parole for manslaughter in the death of 6-year-old Jeremy Mardis and 15 years for the attempted manslaughter of Christopher Few. Stafford fired his weapon at a vehicle during a car chase in 2015, striking the suspect (Few) and killing Mardis whom police did not know was in the vehicle.
Both cases are the type of accountability civil society expects to see when lives are lost maliciously at the hands of another. Particularly when it happens at the hands of civil servants tasked with protecting those lives. In the case of Noor, many celebrated his conviction as a broader conversation about the disparities in punishments for Black cops compared to their white counterparts was taking place. Noor being the first officer in decades to be held accountable for killing a civilian in Minnesota was a major driver in the conversation.
When Black officers go to jail, many point to how easy it can be to convict cops. Another topic of contention in the racial justice conversation. As convictions for police misconduct and murder are celebrated, the disparity in white officers not being held accountable maintains its presence at the forefront of the discussion. Since then, much examination has taken place to bring a broader sense of awareness to these variations in accountability. And the disparities are glaring.
On August 24, 2019, Gerald Goines, a Black 54-year-old narcotics officer in Houston, Texas, was charged with two counts of first-degree murder after lying to obtain a search warrant for a no-knock raid that resulted in the deaths of a white couple, Rhogena Nicholas and Dennis Tuttle. The similarities in this case and the Breonna Taylor case are difficult to ignore. Both cases resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians based on falsified evidence.
Had the cops in Taylor’s case been Black would they have been charged? Probably not. But if she was white they likely would have been. What if Gerald Goines had been white? Would he have been charged in the deaths of a white couple? Maybe. But, Goines’ partner, Steve Bryant, who is white and who some argue is equally complicit, has only been charged with tampering with a government record — falsifying information on the confidential informant forms that led to a no-knock warrant being issued.
If you’re wondering why Bryant isn’t charged with two counts of first-degree murder, you can stop guessing.
When Black Cops Kill Black People
On April 12, 2015, Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man, was killed by several officers of the Baltimore Police Department after being arrested for possession of a knife. Six officers, three Black and three white were charged with various crimes in Gray’s death. Cesar Goodson was charged with the crime of second-degree depraved-heart murder and was acquitted. Three other officers were also acquitted and the remaining charges were dropped on July 27, 2016.
On March 18, 2018, Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by two officers of the Sacramento Police Department. The officers, one Black and one white, would not be charged. On March 2, 2019, the Sacramento district attorney announced that the officers involved had probable cause and were justified in their use of deadly force. Both officers, Jared Robinet and Terrence Mercadal returned to duty in the Sacramento Police Department.
While we’ve seen Black cops charged and convicted for the murder of white people, they are less likely to be charged if they kill a Black person. We all wish we can say that the cases mentioned here are outliers but nothing could be further from the truth. A huge part of the issue comes from society’s perceptions about non-white victims of police brutality in that they are too often seen as instigators in their own deaths. Meanwhile, white people who suffer at the hands of police misconduct are routinely seen as victims, no questions asked.
Civil society laments the unjust murders by police. However, the system that is upheld by civil society disproportionately prosecutes only those who murder white people. Arguably the biggest driver complicating the conviction of police officers stems from Americans complacently allowing police unions to bargain their way into protecting corrupt cops. Union representatives use those bargaining agreements to help dictate who gets prosecuted by deciding whether to fight for an accused officer or not.
On February 2, 2020, Alvin Cole, a 17-year-old Black teen was shot and killed Joseph Mensah, a Black cop in the Wauwatosa, Wisconsin police department. While Cole initially refused commands to drop a 9mm handgun, Mensah shot him twice while he was on his hands and knees and three more times as he was face down on the ground. The murder of Cole brought to light two other shootings Mensah was involved in. On July 16, 2015, Mensah shot Antonio Gonzalez 8 times, killing him. Gonzalez was drunk and wielding a sword at the time. Then, on June 23, 2016, less than a year later, Mensah fired into a parked car killing Jay Anderson as he was sleeping. Mensah’s union contract allowed him to retire in November 2020 and he is now a sheriff’s deputy with the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Office.
Many Black officers are often cast out by their unions after committing crimes against white people. However, when the victims are Black, Latino, Indigenous, or other people of color, cops are often granted immediate protection through the use of union lawyers, political clout held by union bosses (who are overwhelmingly white), and their connections to prosecutors. Systemic racism in policing does not rely on white officers to enforce it. In the modern era, it makes use of Black officers and officers of color to uphold the centuries-old system of non-white oppression.
The difficulties in prosecuting police officers rely heavily on who the victims are. Portrayals of non-white victims in the news immediately after each death tend to focus on the victim’s behavior just before they were killed. Even in cases where the victims were young, such as in Tamir Rice’s case, the media reported on his mother’s old drug charge. When Michael Brown was killed, the media centered on him trying to steal cigars from a convenience store. When Dennis Tuttle and Rhogena Nicholas were killed they were immediately portrayed as victims of a corrupt police state.
In the Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, Calvin John Smile and David Fakunle write, “White privilege and other forms of privilege allow journalists and other media outlets to report on these cases the way they do, without self-reflection of how the words, images, and storylines are disseminated. These narratives play a role in the initial assumption of the victim and can shift the perspective of how these victims are viewed.”
Much of the news you see demonizing non-white victims of state-sanctioned murder is often leaked by police union bosses and lawyers. Such was the case in the murder of Botham Jean when the media reported on the day of his funeral that a minuscule amount of marijuana was found in his apartment. That was not an accident. It’s a purposeful demonization that the media loves to propagate. It’s also how perceptions are created and jury pools tainted. Propaganda is one of the biggest social drivers of hate and discrimination. Law enforcement is no exception.
These cases represent how law enforcement operates on America’s streets.
People will point to Amber Guyger and maybe even Derek Chauvin, but I’m not buying the examples made of two cops out of hundreds if not thousands. I’m also not buying the talk of the “blue wall of silence” showing cracks or coming down. That’s not happening either. Yes, Chauvin will likely be made an example of, however, that doesn’t mean the system is changing.
In closing, I’m reminded of Redditt Hudson, co-founder of the National Coalition of Law Enforcement Officers for Justice Reform and Accountability and a former St. Louis cop, when he said, “It is not only white officers who abuse their authority. The effect of institutional racism is such that no matter what color the officer abusing the citizen is, in the vast majority of those cases of abuse that citizen will be black or brown. That is what is allowed
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