Even though a grand jury did not indict a white police officer in the killing of an unarmed black 18-year-old man in Ferguson, Missouri, the national hysteria leading up to decision is a fresh indictment of America. The core issue was a charge of police brutality by a white officer shooting an unarmed black 18-year-old man. Yet all around the country, the talk was about black violence.
Here in Boston, police sent out robocalls to public school students and sending messages to college students to stay calm. In Oakland, Calif., businesses put steel plates on their doors. In Los Angeles, Police Chief Charlie Beck said he hoped to get advance notice from Missouri authorities whether the grand jury indicted Ferguson officer Darren Wilson for Brown’s shooting. And in Ferguson, some schools closed in anticipation of the decision, gun sales skyrocketed and a state of emergency was declared by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon.
To be sure, Attorney General Eric Holder and many black clergy also asked for police restraint for any protests over the grand jury’s decision. But such balanced pleas were drowned out by the drama of an FBI warning that the grand jury’s decision “will likely be exploited by some individuals to justify threats and attacks against law enforcement and critical infrastructure.” The memo said people “could be armed with bladed weapons or firearms, equipped with tactical gear/gas masks, or bulletproof vests to mitigate law enforcement measures.”
Meanwhile, police restraint is hard to come by.
“Why not taze him?” asked an anguished father of the boy. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a Taser was never a consideration because information that the gun was nonlethal never made it to the officers who responded.
Also last week, an unarmed black man was shot to death in New York City in a dark public housing stairwell by a rookie police officer. The police said the shooting was accidental, but at a rally protesting the shooting, the Associated Press quoted 64-year-old former public housing resident Alex Mallory as saying, “Until you address the issue of police killing people of color, we’re always going to have the problem. . .What are you saying, people who live in developments are animals or something?”
Until the nation frets more about actual police killings than it does speculating on potential black violence, questions like Mallory’s will continue to be asked. In 1968, the literary critic Hoyt Fuller wrote, “Black people are being called ‘violent’ these days, as if violence is a new invention out of the ghetto. But violence against the black minority is in-built in the established American society.”
As if to prove that Fuller continues to be right, USA Today two weeks ago reported that the number of fatal police shootings around the country last year was nearly nine a week, the highest in two decades. Earlier this year, the newspaper reported that nearly two black people a week were killed by police in a seven-year span ending in 2012. While one in five black people killed by police are under 21, only one in 11 white people killed by police are so young.
And many criminologists say we hardly know the full truth as USA Today found that only 750 of 17,000 police departments around the nation file killings by police with the FBI. The Obama administration, led by Holder, has demonstrated a vigilance not seen in many years, issuing findings of patterns of unconstitutional police misconduct, racially discriminatory enforcement or excessive force in several police departments, including those in Albuquerque, Miami, and New Orleans.
But there are obviously thousands more departments to be examined. Psychologists have proven that black people are perceived as more dangerous, yet relatively few police departments are known to train officers against such stereotypes. “We would find out which departments are the worst, which ones do better than others and begin to have an idea of what departments need in training, policy and supervision,” Samuel Walker, professor emeritus of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, told me in an interview. “Information empowers the public and public officials to say, ‘Let’s figure out what to do.’ ”
Geoffrey Alpert of the University of South Carolina, who has conducted several studies for the Justice Department, said that “data would be the first point of contact with getting a handle on what is going on. It would tell us if there had been no other questionable shootings in the department or if it was the fourth such shooting in a year. It would help give us a bird’s eyes view instead a worm’s eye view.”
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.