Recent Slayings of Unarmed Black Men Showcase Culture of Police Violence

How long can we expect to see new reports and videos of unarmed Black men being shot by police in incidents all across the country? Aspects of two of the most recent shootings in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and North Charleston, South Carolina, suggest some answers to the question, and the answers do not bode well.

The videotaped shootings of Eric Harris in Oklahoma and Walter Scott in South Carolina both depict the killing of unarmed Black men as a result of what appears to be an unjustified and unnecessary use of force. Scott was hit five times in the back while running slowly away from the police officer who ended his life, while the fatal shot to the back of Eric Harris came from a volunteer reserve deputy who had been allowed to carry a badge and gun after he made substantial donations to the Tulsa sheriff.  Both cases merit immediate and thorough investigation, and appropriate steps should be taken to prosecute any police officer determined to have engaged in illegal conduct in connection with the deaths of Mr. Scott and Mr. Harris.

But looking at each incident in its entirety suggests that the problems run far deeper than mere accidents or miscalculations that occur in a split second under extreme stress. Instead, both cases demonstrate a distinct callousness and insensitivity, which suggest that the stage for these killings may have been set long before shots were actually fired.

After shooting Walter Scott five times, Officer Michael Slager showed no concern for Scott’s distress. Instead, Slager approached the dying man, who lay face down in the grass only to handcuff him, walk calmly away, and then retrieve something that the officer later dropped near his lifeless body. After being shot by Tulsa volunteer deputy Bob Bates, Eric Harris, handcuffed and crying in pain, was told to “shut the fuck up” by one of the arresting officers, who, adding insult to injury, responded to the wounded man’s statement that he was having trouble breathing with, “Fuck your breath.”

It is unclear whether that officer recognized Harris’ statement as an eerie echo of Eric Garner’s repeated complaint of “I can’t breath” before his death from a chokehold at the hands of the NYPD last summer — a  statement later adopted as a rallying cry by those protesting the illegal use of force by police. Whether the officer’s crude and insensitive comment was a broader rebuke to the idea that #blacklivesmatter, or just a reaction to the instant circumstances, there can be no doubt that he displayed a fundamental disregard for the humanity of the person who had just been wrongfully shot by his volunteer colleague.

Sadly, this gross disregard for Black life is not limited to these two shootings, nor is it limited to the Black shooting victims themselves. Instead, the families of the victims, as well as members of the communities from which they come, are often treated disrespectfully and with unnecessary physical force by police. After police shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice while he was playing with a toy gun, officers forcibly tackled Rice’s 14-year-old sister, who was still in shock over her brother’s shooting, and later threatened to arrest his mother, who was understandably distraught over the news of her son’s shooting.

Nor should the blame be placed solely with the individual police officers involved in these incidents. In these and many other cases in which officers shot and killed Black men, law enforcement agencies have responded by releasing information about the victims’ past criminal records, intended to besmirch the characters of those on the receiving end of their brutality — as if the fact of a victim’s prior involvement with the criminal justice system justified the illegal use of force by people sworn to uphold the law. The release of such information and the publication of slanted stories about these crime victims by the law enforcement agencies who may later be responsible for investigating the same crimes not only unfairly taints the victims, but it also reinforces the overt and implicit biases that depict Black men as being violent people who deserve whatever violence has been perpetrated against them.

To their credit, the North Charleston Police Department and mayor both arrested the offending police officer and reached out in sympathy to Mr. Scott’s family. Likewise, the Tulsa County district attorney has charged the volunteer deputy who shot Eric Harris with manslaughter, providing hope that some measure of justice will be served. These commonsense actions and gestures are the first small steps in addressing a police culture of fear and bias that is perpetuated by the too common failure to hold accountable police who use excessive force against people of color. But if we fail to follow through and eliminate that culture, it will assure that the stories of police violence now filling the media will continue on a loop without end.  And with every one of these stories there comes another life ended, another set of family and friends in grief, another community torn apart, and another tragedy that could have been prevented.

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Anonymous

"Culture of Police Violence" is a superfluous phrase. Police are violent, just like the military. You don't have to like it, but that's how it is, and it's because of the reality we live in. A non-violent police force is no longer the police. Misconduct is another issue altogether.

Second, "Unarmed" doesn't tell me anything. I can kill someone without using a single weapon. Being armed or not armed doesn't tell you if the police are justified in using deadly force. Carelessly throwing the word "unarmed" around is extremely irresponsible. The ACLU does not speak for me when they do this. I have higher standards than this.

Anonymous

It's a Shame wafts going on but real truth is cops are afraid because the blacks have caused a lot of this. Every day I turn on the television there is another black on black shooting. They must begin changing within the family unit. Also the amount of guns on this country also is the root of the problem. Always blaming others !

Anonymous

Most of those shootings that occurred happened because the victim either struggled with the officer or ran. Most had records. That doesn't justify the shootings but wouldn't happen otherwise. We blame on race but that's absurd

Anonymous

Why don't you march when a black shoots another black. You would be marching everyday. How about a campaign to stop the violence. That your not capable of!

Anonymous

Have not seen you post opposition because you can't hear the other side. You are the reason we are in this mess The president is the other reason. Protest all the black on black killings. You don't because you actually don't care about black lives

Anonymous

its not solely people of color being victimized by aggressive, angry, violent, badge happy cops. I think we have to require more training and education before anyone can strap on a gun and start playing God. Two years at a community college? Not enough.

Anonymous

All Law Enforcement should be required to wear body cameras due to the genocide of black, brown& white citizens within our states. Body cameras on Peace officers will restore some confidence in trusting our justice system. Transparency by our civil servants should be a requirement of the job due to the oath to protect & defend the civil & human rights of all the citizens of a state or community from foreign or domestic enemies to which Peace Officers serve and protect.!!! Police Officer's, Marshall's, Deputy Sheriff's, Correction Officer's, Jail Medical Staff & Jail Mental Health Staff, E.M.T.,Fire Dept. should be more accountable to Action Review Boards, Communities, Transparency in all these essential departments would restore some trust in law enforcement and save some black,brown,white lives.

Anonymous

To focus only on the Black men who have been beaten or killed by police is to understate the problem. Police officers are doing this every day to people of all races. I will be the first to agree that problem disproportionately affects African Americans, but to speak (or write) about it as a fundamentally racial problem is to marginalize it. After all, if you make it a "Black" problem, then there will be a lot of non-Blacks who will just turn their heads, figuring they don't have a dog in this fight. The truth is that police nationwide are out of control, having adopted a "comply or die" approach to policing. There are police out there who are looking for reasons to use force, including deadly force if they see fit, on citizens. Apparently, it's easier for an officer to shoot someone than to use other means to get them to put down a broomstick, or keep them from running away.

Whether or not it serves your political agenda, the fact is that this problem affects all Americans. It's time to weed out the officers who can't apply common sense to their jobs and recognize that not every situation calls for dominance and forced compliance. Sometimes, you've got to problem-solve, and that means using your brain. If you can't do that, then you've chosen the wrong profession.

Anonymous

Spot on!

Curtis P California

A Systemic change has to occur, California should immediately deploy dashboard cameras and body cameras to record all interactions with the public . A Systemic cultural change with all Law Enforcement Officer's & citizen's of the communities in which they serve and implementing Dashboard Camera's & Body Camera's, equates accountability & transparency of the Law Enforcement officer's actions . Urge your politician to enact legislation to protect us from corrupt & overzealous & abusive & dishonest Law Enforcement Officer's.!!! All California Law Enforcement Officer's should deploy Body Camera's & Dashboard Camera's its Los Angeles, California corruption and excessive force is the norm it's nothing new.!!!

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