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Questions you can’t avoid about policing in America

How can this be happening in America in 2020?

A girl sat outside a burned Wendy's restaurant on the third day following Rayshard Brooks's shooting death by police in the restaurant parking lot in Atlanta.CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images

You watch these horrifying videos of police killing Black people over and over and you shake your head and ask the same question.

How can this be happening in America in 2020?

You watch Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe shoot Rayshard Brooks in the back twice in a Wendy’s parking lot and you want to yell:

Why? Yes, he had punched you earlier when resisting arrest, Rolfe, but he was no real threat to you in the moments before you shot him.

He was running away.

You knew he was unarmed, except for a Taser he had grabbed.

You knew his name and address.


You had his car.

You could have apprehended him later.

The offense he allegedly committed — operating under the influence — isn’t a violent crime.

You try to imagine the defense that will be offered for his killing: Well, he had resisted arrest and was trying to flee and had fired a Taser at Rolfe, or at least in his general direction.

So what? Police officers tase scores of people every year. It is considered a nonlethal weapon, meant to immobilize temporarily, not to kill or injure on a permanent basis. (That said, there are multiple examples of Taser use resulting in death; its use is being reviewed by various police departments.)

A shocked nation has asked itself a different question with regard to George Floyd. How in the name of God could Derek Chauvin kneel on the neck of an immobilized, nonstruggling man and kill him over an agonizing eight minutes and 46 seconds, even as Floyd pleads that he can’t breathe — and as bystanders beg the police to stop?

This, obviously, was not the panicked police impulse of a moment.

And, though obviously far less serious, how in the world do Tulsa police officers roughly arrest one Black teenager, and temporarily handcuff another, for jaywalking? For jaywalking.


A further question comes up, given the everything-is-recorded nature of the era we are in. We have now seen years of cellphone videos showing unwarranted violence, lethal and otherwise, inflicted upon Black people. Why isn’t there some deterrent value in the knowledge that you are probably being videoed?

Five years ago, perhaps the notion that they were being captured on video simply didn’t occur to police. That may have been the case in April 2015, when after stopping him for a broken taillight, North Charleston police officer Michael Slager killed a fleeing Walter Scott by shooting him multiple times in the back, a homicide for which Slager is serving 20 years. But it has since become common practice for bystanders to film encounters between police and those they are questioning or apprehending.

Those aren’t the only questions that plague us, though. There is also this: How can someone look at all these events, chronicled on video, and not see a serious, systemic problem with the way police treat Black people, and particularly Black men, with whom they interact?

People can get lost in conflicting statistics here, but surely this is the one that’s probative: According to a 2016 study by criminal justice specialists at the University of South Carolina and University of Louisville, in encounters with police, unarmed Black people are at least twice as likely to be fatally shot as unarmed whites.


Next comes this question: How could a bad cop possibly believe, at this point in history, that he can get away with this kind of thing?

And then you discover just how hard it is to convict a police officer in a lethal shooting, because of the legal thresholds that must be met. According to the standard laid down by the US Supreme Court, a police officer can legally use lethal force if he has “an objectively reasonable” belief that someone presents a risk of serious physical harm to himself or others.

That sounds stricter than it actually is. In legal proceedings, it essentially translates into whether a jury or judge believes that a reasonable police officer in those circumstances could arrive at the decision to use deadly force. (Citing the broad latitude that gives police, reform advocates have suggested other legal or training standards, such as requiring the use of de-escalation tactics or nonlethal force in situations where those are possible.)

And so you ask yourself a final question: Will things — can things — ever really change until that too-forgiving standard does?

Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him @GlobeScotLehigh.