December 16, 2014

Why Don't Black People Just Do What the Police Say?

A common response I hear to the different incidents of police killings of unarmed citizens due to excessive force, mostly from white people and from some blacks occasionally, is basically along the lines of "why didn't they just do what the police told them to do?....why didn't they comply?.... "why don't blacks respect police authority?"

So, to this point about compliance, watch the video for the context of what I'm saying. The police in Cleveland shot 12 year old Tamir Rice who had a toy gun within 2 seconds of arriving on the scene. Their vehicle did not even come to a full stop. John Crawford in Dayton was basically shot on sight in Walmart, again with a toy gun, in an open carry state. Those two and Garner in NY, who was also unarmed and who had NOT committed any crime at the time NYPD attempted to arrest him, were not given a fraction of the deference the armed and openly defiant white man in this video was given. Look at the number of officers on the scene. Listen to how much compassion and empathy they show this man.

No compliance. Armed. Openly defiant. Yet shown so much deference. You don't even have to ask what would happen if he were a black male behaving this way because we already know what happens to UNARMED black males who are even mildly non-compliant (Garner). Police would have responded with lethal force. So the operative issue in these situations is not about compliance with police authority.

Police can and do exercise their discretionary authority differently for white people and black people. A black child with a toy gun in Cleveland is shot dead in 2 seconds, while this armed non-compliant white male is cajoled, coddled and catered to in an effort not to harm him. Blacks in encounters with police rarely if ever receive such deference. You can find a variety of videos like this online that demonstrate how differently this issue of "compliance" with police authority is dealt with for blacks. His life seemed to matter to the cops. Too often it appears that ours do not. So I think the issue of compliance is merely a distraction from the real issue at hand, namely the arbitrary and racially discriminatory fashion in which police exercise their authority and discretion to act or not to act with escalating levels of force against people of color.

In other words, it is the wrong approach to define black noncompliance as the problem in these cases when this video clearly demonstrates the wide array of effective responses available to police to deal with a person who is ACTUALLY armed and dangerous. The problem is that when it comes to people of color, police far too often bypass such responses and jump right to the use of force to compel compliance, typically leaping over readily available intermediate steps in the continuum of force in the process.

12 year old Tamir Rice came to the attention of police in exactly the way this man did, a citizen called it in. He would be alive today if he had been handled as this man was.

"Why didn't they just do what the police told them to do?....why didn't they comply?.... "why don't blacks respect police authority?"

Respect is continually earned and can be easily lost. When black people repeatedly observe police engage in excessive use of force or otherwise exercise heavy handed tactics and poor professional judgement in our communities, police erode respect for their authority. Beyond that, when blacks easily observe wide vast differences in the exercise of police discretion to use or not use force to obtain compliance, differences that are clearly based on the race of the citizen involved, police degrade their authority.

Furthermore, when Blacks repeatedly see these behaviors result in catastrophic consequences to citizens in death, injury or other egregious harms for which their should be accountability and police mislead, mischaracterize, outright fabricate or lie about their actions, all while relying on the societal presumption of their veracity, to avoid accountability, police erode respect for their authority. 

When police departments and court systems tell the community that while its really too bad about what happened to your family member or loved one that was caused by police actions, its really not our fault, its not anyone's fault and no one will be held accountable, respect for police authority is lost.
Long story short: blacks have little reason to respect the authority of police if police are themselves not subject to any authority or accountability no matter how egregious or destructive their behavior is.