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When Will Activists (and the Media) Get Honest About Police Shootings?

Minutes before Derek Chauvin was convicted on all three counts of murder and manslaughter, Ma’Khia Bryant, a black teenage girl in Columbus, Ohio, was shot dead by police. Almost immediately, enraged protestors gathered outside police headquarters. “Say Her Name!” they chanted. The New York Times reported that the girl’s grieving mother, Paula Bryant, had told WBNS that her daughter was “a very loving, peaceful little girl.”

In an attempt to correct a tendentious version of events immediately promoted by civil rights attorney Ben Crump (and uncritically repeated by the Times) in which the young victim was described as unarmed, the Columbus police department took the unusual step of releasing the officer’s body-worn camera video the same day. During a briefing at which the footage was exhibited for the press, police played the video twice, the second time in slow motion—because events on the ground escalated with such rapidity that it’s the only way to follow what happened:

The police officer gets out of his squad car and approaches a group of people milling about in the driveway in front of a suburban home. Amid much yelling and cross-talk, Bryant suddenly lunges at a girl, knocking her to the ground, before turning on another dressed in pink and charging at her with a knife in her fist. The officer’s repeated shouts of “Get down!” are ignored and he shoots Bryant four times as she swings the blade at her intended victim. Only 10 seconds elapse between the moment the officer first asks “What’s goin’ on?” as he approaches the scene and the fourth shot. The shooting required split-second decision-making to save the girl in pink from being stabbed.

During the Q&A, reporters asked the Columbus Police Chief if the officer who shot Bryant had tried to “de-escalate” the situation. In a separate interview, a reporter asked him whether the officer could have perhaps shot Bryant in the leg instead, like a gunfighter in a Hollywood Western. Michael Woods, the interim police chief of Columbus, explained that an investigation was underway, but added that police officers are not trained to aim for arms and legs because they are almost impossible to hit on a moving target and stray bullets can endanger bystanders. Since Bryant was standing between the police officer and the woman in pink when the shots were fired, the officer probably ought to be commended for his accuracy as well as his reflexes. The woman in pink almost certainly owes him her life.

None of which stopped Melina Abdullah, head of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, from weighing in the day after the video of the shooting had been made public. During an interview about the Chauvin conviction, Abdullah said: “And even as we were collectively exhaling, we know that Ma’Khia Bryant was murdered by police in Columbus, Ohio.” Really? Murdered? The officer shot one person who was attempting to stab another. Abdullah thinks we should replace police with mental health workers to help people like Ma’Khia Bryant. Fair enough. But by the time the officer arrived on the scene that opportunity had been missed, and a mental health worker may just have become a piñata.

Another recent cause célèbre is the case of Daunte Wright who was shot and killed during a traffic stop on April 11th while the Chauvin trial was in progress. Insider has published a detailed breakdown of Wright’s criminal history and a video of the shooting. Officers pulled Wright over for a traffic violation related to expired registration tags. They then discovered he had an outstanding arrest warrant for illegal possession of a loaded gun and fleeing from the police. The warrant was issued as a bail violation while Wright was awaiting trial for first-degree aggravated robbery. He and an accomplice were accused of forcing their way into a woman’s home and attempting to steal $820 from her at gunpoint.

During an emotional conversation with CNN’s Don Lemon, Daunte Wright’s understandably distressed aunt said: “People are trying to drag my nephew’s name through the dirt. It don’t mean nothing. He didn’t deserve to die. My nephew was a damn good kid.” One can forgive a distraught relative her distortions and biases, but there’s no reason for journalists to repeat them as if they were facts. As Wright was being cuffed by a (black) officer, he jumped back into his car. Kim Potter, the assisting officer, drew her firearm and yelled “I’ll tase you!” and then “Taser! Taser! Taser!” before shooting Wright once. Given her distressed cry of “Oh shit I shot him!” it seems to be fairly clear that this was an accidental discharge.

But in today’s feverish media environment, the only plausible explanation for a police shooting of a black suspect is “racism” or “implicit bias.” The criminal actions or record of a suspect are dismissed as “tropes,” and police are expected to be infallible. Even bad policy badly applied (no-knock raids come to mind) are seldom admitted as mitigation. And so, within hours of Daunte Wright’s death, protesters threw bricks and cans at officers outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department. At least 20 businesses in a nearby mall were looted. Protesters gathered there the whole week.

You have to dig to find any mention of Daunte Wright’s criminal history in the generally hagiographic coverage of his death. You don’t have to dig far to find heartbreaking pictures of Wright with his toddler son, a testament to the complex humanity of his young life. Kimberly Potter now faces manslaughter charges after a long and apparently decent career as a police officer. So far, she has been allowed no such complexity. He is an innocent victim. She is a trigger-happy racist. The shooting was most likely an accident and a tragedy for everybody concerned, Wright and Potter included. But there is no evidence yet that Wright’s race played any role in this encounter whatsoever.

How are police supposed to react when a man with an outstanding warrant for carrying a loaded gun resists arrest and dives into his vehicle? A suspect with a violent record is inevitably going to change a police officer’s risk assessment in situations like these, not least because apparently uneventful encounters between police and suspects can turn lethal without warning. During a traffic stop in Nashville, an officer approached a car belonging to a convicted felon with six outstanding felony warrants. When he encountered the man’s girlfriend instead, the officer rescinded his call for backup. After a testy but unthreatening exchange, she started to resist as the officer tried to place her under arrest. Panicking, she got back in her car. The officer’s attempts to tase her were unsuccessful, and she shot him before fleeing the scene.

Protests do not erupt when white suspects resist arrest and get shot, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. To the contrary, whites are shot more frequently than members of any other racial group. During another traffic stop, a white suspect suddenly pulled a gun on a Kentucky State trooper after their congenial discussion led the officer to suspect he might be a drug smuggler. Asked to step out of the car, the man said, “I can’t do that” and produced a gun. This was moments after he had offered the cop some of the potato chips he was eating. The cop lurched sideways and shot the man. The incident received no media coverage and no protests ensued. Or consider this incident, in which a young woman was being questioned by Arizona police officers responding to reports of a shooting. Her bag was searched and when police found drugs and ammunition they attempted to take her into custody. She resisted, drew a gun, and was shot as she attempted to flee the scene on foot.

All three suspects needlessly escalated a tense situation by resisting interrogation or arrest. Two were white, one was black. But there is no evidence that the behavior of the officers concerned had anything to do with the suspects’ skin color or gender or any other demographic particular. These incidents developed as they did on account of the suspects’ actions.

Which is not to say that cops don’t do bad things. The press release posted on the Minneapolis Police Department’s website shortly after Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd was entitled “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.” Although the press release contains no outright falsehoods (it would be more accurate to say Floyd was “pronounced dead” upon arrival at Hennepin County Medical Center rather than that “he died” there), this initial account contains several egregious omissions, including the fact that Chauvin and his colleagues continued to restrain a handcuffed suspect in the prone position for over nine minutes, even after he passed out and became pulseless.

The case has now been heard before a duly constituted court and Derek Chauvin will go to prison, along with the cops who killed Laquan McDonald (2014), Walter Scott (2015), and Botham Jean (2018). Notwithstanding the department’s dismal press release, some of Chauvin’s own MPD colleagues testified against him in court, including the police chief. US Attorney General Merrick Garland has since announced a Justice Department investigation into potential unconstitutional or unlawful policing in Minneapolis. This is how our judicial system is supposed to work to address negligence, incompetence, and criminality in police forces.

But it’s simply untrue that all shootings of black suspects are comparable to the unlawful killing of George Floyd or part of a pattern of racialized violence. Many of these incidents, like the shooting of Ma’Khia Bryant, are interactions that necessitate split-second, life-and-death decisions by the officer or officers on the scene. On March 29th, 13-year-old Adam Toledo was shot dead by a Chicago police officer as he ran from police following a night-time “shots fired” call. The officer’s body-worn camera appears to show that Toledo was holding a gun moments before the officer shot and killed him. Toledo seemed to have discarded the weapon as he turned and raised his hands in compliance with the officer’s command, but the body-worn camera that more-or-less replicates the officer’s point-of-view indicates the officer couldn’t see that. How was he supposed to make that split-second decision?

The frozen image of the young boy’s final moment, hands raised, caught in the glare of a police officer’s flashlight is certainly harrowing. But was it racism? Toledo was Latino and the officer was white, but that by itself is not evidence of bias. And the age of a suspect is irrelevant if they are carrying a firearm in an encounter like this one. This was demonstrated this week when 13-year-old King Douglas (who was black) was shot and killed at a shopping mall by a 12-year-old boy who remains unidentified (although, statistically, it is highly probable that he will also turn out to be black).

When a gun or a knife is involved it changes everything, not least the degree of risk to which an officer may be exposed, especially with young teenagers whose brains aren’t fully formed and booted up with impulse control. But in today’s breathless news environment, all of these cases are simply lumped together as evidence of murderous systemic bias. Large swathes of the media are reluctant to challenge a reductive activist line by acknowledging the complexities of rapidly evolving encounters, in situations fraught with uncertainty, that can accelerate from civil discussion to lethal violence in a matter of seconds.

For the last five years, the police have shot dead around 1,000 people a year, the vast majority of whom were armed or otherwise dangerous. Only 40 fatally wounded suspects were unarmed in 2019. A thousand sounds like a lot, but that’s out of around 61.5 million people who had at least one police encounter in 2018 according to the Bureau of Justice. (Many individuals have multiple interactions with law enforcement, which may be the basis of the often-referenced 375 million police/civilian encounters per year.) Using 61.5 million people encountering the police, even if 99.99 percent go perfectly, that’s still 6,150 that will go badly for some reason, including incidents in which suspects violently resist arrest or anxious officers make mistakes in a country with more guns than people. Out of the 1,004 people shot dead by police in 2019, nine were unarmed blacks and 19 were unarmed whites, according to a Washington Post database. This was down from 36 and 32, respectively, in 2015 and 2017. So, the trend seems to have been in decline, not worsening, when the Floyd riots occurred. Are you surprised by these numbers in light of the relentless rhetoric about the epidemic of blacks being shot by racist white cops? I was.

It may be objected that blacks account for about 23 percent of those shot dead by police but they only account for about 13 percent of the US population, so they are being killed at nearly double the rate of their demographic representation. But that’s not the whole story. In 2018, the latest year for which such data have been published, African Americans made up 53 percent of known homicide offenders in the US and committed 60 percent of robberies. Disproportionate involvement in violent criminality leads to a disproportionate number of encounters with police, a disproportionate number of which can be expected to turn violent. If anything, the death rate of black suspects is lower than the percentages predict.

Meanwhile, in 2018, according to the FBI, there were 7,407 black homicide victims, 91 percent of whom were killed by other black males. So there is an epidemic of black Americans being shot, but not by the police. If a comparable number of blacks were victims of homicide in 2019, then nine unarmed black victims of police shootings represent 0.1 percent of all African Americans killed that year. Amazingly, given the ostensible concern for black lives, it has become taboo to mention these data and this alone is making frank discussion of this topic more difficult. Greater accountability is rightly being demanded of the police. So why are the general population, including black Americans, shielded from the same scrutiny? Why is every black person killed by police in America a presumptive saint (even though 96 percent were armed), while every cop is a presumptive racist? Because in the increasingly dishonest coverage of race in America, this narrative sells.

CNN recently broadcast a short segment in which Darrius Strong (a black male) and Kelsey Charlotte (his white female friend) compare their separate encounters with police when they were pulled over for speeding. The short video is worth watching. Strong was understandably nervous when a female cop approached his vehicle with her gun drawn. He immediately put his empty hands through the window of the car so she could see them. She re-holstered her firearm and asked him to identify himself. When he complied, she informed him they have a warrant. Complying with the officer’s instructions, he got out of his car. He didn’t run, draw a weapon, or resist in any way. When they realized it was a case of mistaken identity, they apologized and told him he was free to go. From this Strong infers that all blacks look alike to the police, and adds that he might be dead today. So, why isn’t he? Because this was a textbook example of good policing intersecting with sensible citizen behavior.

Nevertheless, we are invited by CNN to compare Strong’s account of allegedly racially motivated harassment (“black bodies, black men, black people, I mean anything can happen to us”) with his friend Kelsey Charlotte’s experience. Charlotte says she was pulled over, became upset, and was given a minute to collect herself by the female cop before being let go with a warning and no ticket. A different kind of encounter altogether! The two friends then talk about Daunte Wright, and how it went for him. Only, Charlotte wasn’t approached as a potentially dangerous suspect with a felony warrant like Wright (correctly) or Strong (incorrectly)—a difference that had nothing to do with her race. It may be that Charlotte’s female cop thin-sliced the situation and gave the flustered woman a break. After all, she was tearful, apologetic, and statistically not in a high crime group. We don’t know. But the leniency with which she was treated isn’t obviously anything to do with race.

Last month, I was pulled over for speeding on the 405 freeway. I wasn’t handcuffed (no warrant) and I didn’t get shot (I was polite and cooperative and kept my hands where the officer could see them). But I got a ticket instead of a warning (white male, no tears). Still, the Hispanic officer did knock it down to 80 miles per hour so I would be eligible for traffic school, pointing out that I had a clean driving record and that I copped to speeding without excuses or argument. He wrote me the ticket and we both went on our way.

But according to the worldview represented by the CNN video, the only difference between my experience and that of Daunte Wright was the color of my skin. Good and bad outcomes are reduced to racism and implicit bias without any consideration of context. Cops are never permitted to make mistakes, like Kim Potter who fired her gun instead of her taser. Nor are they permitted to shoot a black person under any circumstances, even when that person is about to stab someone else. And they must always make the correct life-or-death decision in a dark alley after responding to a “shots fired” call and seeing a young man with a gun. And yet cops will make mistakes for the simple reason that they are fallible human beings like the rest of us. The vast number of interactions statistically guarantees it.

America urgently needs an honest conversation about crime and accountability, for both citizens and the police, or the topic will be monopolized by race-baiting demagogues on the Left and the Right. This obviously means continuing to aggressively prosecute police misconduct whenever it occurs. But accountability runs both ways, and we have to be able to acknowledge the killing of young black men by other young black men, often over petty rivalries, fueled by the easy availability of handguns. Twenty-two lives a day are being lost to this mayhem—more than double the unarmed black lives taken by cops in a year. Where are the days of rage for these people? Don’t their lives matter, too? And if not, why not?

If activists on the Left are actually having these tough discussions, they don’t seem particularly eager to advertize the fact. Instead, the consequences of black criminality seem to be ignored by activists, manipulated by demagogues, and exploited by the criminals themselves, who now use every police screw-up as a license to loot and burn. When organized gangs torched downtown Santa Monica on May 31st, 2020, I stood and watched as they unloaded their loot into rows of idling SUVs—a parallel reality to the truly peaceful protests they hijacked. It should not be surprising to discover that even after George Floyd’s murder 81 percent of black Americans want the same level, or more, of police presence, according to Gallup.

The world recoiled from the protracted killing of George Floyd, and our justice system duly delivered three guilty verdicts. But if this outcome encourages a rush to condemn every police shooting of a black man as part of a racist epidemic, it will do more harm than good in the long run. White liberals and radicals who make excuses for violent criminality in black neighborhoods because we can’t expect any better from the oppressed should realize that they are engaging in a racism of low expectations. Not only are they trampling over commonly agreed notions of moral responsibility, but they are disfiguring the reality of an issue about which they claim to care deeply.

Either Americans engage in an honest conversation about this topic, or we will cede the ground to those determined to have a dishonest conversation about it for political gain. Without honesty, we will not survive (and indeed we will waste) our racial inflection point. Progressives, BLM activists, and the media organizations selling outrage for clicks all need to step up and participate. When will we start?

 

Arthur Jeon was a founding member of Compassion Prison Project, which teaches trauma awareness and meditation at Kern Valley Maximum Security Prison. Random House published two of his non-fiction books: City Dharma: Keeping Your Cool in the Chaos; and Sex, Love & Dharma: Finding Love Without Losing Your Way. You can follow him on Twitter @ArthurJeonToGo.