Almost two years ago, the world watched Eric Garner die at the hands of police officers on an endless loop, the consequences of the 24-hour news cycle. His final words, “I can’t breathe,” repeated over and over while a gang of cops choked the life out of the father of five’s body.
Last week, we witnessed the back-to-back executions of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. The world was introduced to both by way of hashtags and viral videos documenting their final moments. Their deaths, like so many other young Black people that came before them at the hands of police, are a bitter and brutal reminder of our past and present truth.
Black people have no reason to trust the police.
I write this as a Black man with friends and family, fraternity brothers and sorority sisters who wear the badge. I don’t care.
When I say Black people have no reason to trust the police, it is not a statement without historical precedence.
The origins of today’s law enforcement, like many other institutions, are stained with Black blood, built on a foundation of racism and fear of slaves. While widely recognized as unjust today, laws written to control slaves naturally needed an organized presence for enforcement. As Dr. Victor E. Kappeler noted, “The use of patrols to capture runaway slaves was one of the precursors of formal police forces, especially in the South. This disastrous legacy persisted as an element of the police role even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” John S. Dempsey and Linda Forst echo that sentiment, writing, “The slave codes were enforced by developing southern police departments to directly support slavery and the existing economic system of the south.”
Even under the most optimistic and dismissive argument that slavery was a long time ago, the Department of Justice’s report detailing the egregious practices of the Ferguson police department slammed the St. Louis County entity for racial bias and using the police force as a revenue generating institution.
When I say Black people have no reason to trust the police, it is not a statement without anecdotal and statistical support. While all police encounters do not end in video taped murder, violence, harassment and mistrust take on other forms. It is stop and frisk policies. It is being pulled over for being in the “wrong neighborhood.” It’s hearing, “You fit the description." Or, as it was in my case, being roughed up with the bogus justification of carrying an “L-shaped object” when you’ve never fired or even held a weapon.
Even in the horrific aftermath of last week’s shooting of police officers in Dallas, the same police department that found itself on the receiving end of an outpouring of sympathy resorted to the same deceptive tactics that cause many in the Black community to issue a side-eye. As police scrambled to figure out what was going on, the department tweeted a picture of Mark Hughes, stating, “This is our suspect. Help us find him.”
All this despite video evidence showing Hughes, a legal gun owner, not firing his gun when the shooting began and surrendering his weapon to police. “Police officers were lying, saying they had video of me shooting a gun, which is a lie, saying that they had witnesses saying I had shot a gun, which is a lie,” he told local media.
So strained is the relationship between Black people and the police, that even information about the deceased Dallas shooter, Micah Xavier Johnson, and the robot bomb used to end the standoff, brought more questions about law enforcement tactics than it answered.
When I say Black people have no reason to trust the police, it is because the police seem to be unable, or unwilling, to police themselves. A common rebuttal to the critiques on the institution of policing is “not all cops are bad.” Those who have taken an oath to protect and serve all too often end up protecting their own and serving up brutality. The “Blue Wall of Silence” is not something Black people fashioned out of thin air, and it’s more powerful than any “stop snitching” mantra could ever hope to be.
Ask any professional in any field and they can tell you who does the job well and who needs to find a new job. Law enforcement is no exception. “Good cops” know who the “bad cops” are. They know the hot heads, the ones with the reputations for getting a little too physical on calls. The ones quick to talk with their hands, baton, taser or firearm. They know who the racists are on the force. And yet most stay silent.
In defiance of a racist legacy, the Blue Wall showed some cracks this week, with two instances of Black officers speaking boldly against brutality and racism. In response to Sterling’s murder, Warrensville Heights police officer Nakia Jones spoke out in a Facebook video that has now gone viral.
“So, why don’t we just keep it real,” she said. “If you’re that officer that knows good and well you’ve got a God complex, you’re afraid of people that don’t look like you, you have no business in uniform! Take it off!”
In a bolder, and potentially game changing move, the Ethical Society of Police, the union representing St. Louis’ Black police officers, released a 112-page evaluation calling for the resignation of Police Chief Sam Dotson. Of the report, New York Daily News columnist Shaun King outlines differences in the treatment of White officers and their Black counterparts.
“White officers accused of heinous murders were often given the deferential respect of kings while African-American officers were routinely railroaded publicly and privately by the department," he wrote.
The actions of Officer Jones and the Ethical Society of Police are a good start, but are hardly enough to begin the bridge building process between police and the Black community. We need Black officers, and all officers of good conscious, speaking loudly when egregious or even mild cases of brutality occur. Police are quick to remind us that they put their lives on the line everyday, yet so few are willing to risk their badges to speak up.
Until that happens, I can’t trust the police.
And neither should you.