Thursday, August 1, 2013

Police, Race, and Shooting: Here We Go Again

Another week, another case of tragic violence:
Police shoot unarmed man in his driveway
There are a lot of facts that aren't yet known about this case, and it's probably fair to say that some judgment should be reserved until an investigation is completed - although one fears that much of the evidence will be of the he-said/they-said variety, leaving everybody unsatisfied.

However, the outcome is not in question: a 60 year old man, in his own car in his own driveway, was ordered out of his car at 2:30 in the morning and then, upon exiting, was shot at some 15 times by police officers. The man was not armed. This is the end reality that people see, and the one that we most care about - as it should be.

I watched an interview on CNN this morning with the county Sheriff, David Morgan, whose deputies were involved. I wish I could find the video of that interview (there's a little bit in the link above, but the questioning in the later interview was more extensive and direct) - it's instructive (if depressing) to watch. In it, the Sheriff tried to make two points:

• This isn't about race.
• The officers followed their training and did everything properly.

This is, of course, a huge mistake. This guy needs better advice on dealing with the public and the press, and he needs it now.

Like the Zimmerman/Martin case, I expect reaction to this incident to line up on both race and party lines pretty quickly. Black Democrats will be quick to criticize the police; white Republicans will be quick to defend them. Both will accuse the other of being wrong, tensions will likely flare, and we will add still more wood to the burning fire surrounding both race and violence.

Into that inferno (perhaps unwisely), I would offer the following observations:

1) Anybody who says this isn't about race doesn't understand the nature of race politics. As I've said before, things aren't "about race" or "not about race" objectively. Race is a construct that exists in people's minds, both individually and collectively. The fact that I think race is not involved has no bearing on whether someone else agrees - and since race politics is all about perception, anybody's perception becomes reality. It is a near-certainly that portions of the black community in Florida already think this is about race - and therefore it is, whether anyone else likes it or not.

A corollary to this: trying to argue that it shouldn't be about race by citing counter-example cases doesn't help. In the later CNN interview, Sheriff Morgan was asked about the race question. His response was to cite a case from a few weeks prior in which several black women had killed a white woman. He said that no one had gotten upset over race about that case, concluding that therefore no one should in this instance either.

This line of argument is simply throwing gasoline on a fire. At heart, it is an offer of conditional caring. What the Sheriff was saying (or, more importantly, what many people in his community will hear) was: I will care about you and your kind as human beings only after you start thinking, behaving, and acting the way I want. It is a position both morally indefensible and politically moronic. If my compassion for you (which is very much what the CNN interviewer was getting at) is conditional on you agreeing with me and seeing the world the way I do, it is not compassion at all. Stop acting like it is, and stop pretending that you're trying to constructively resolve the conflict - you're just making it worse.

2) Police agencies have largely used up their supply of "trust us, we know what we're doing" as a line of defense. Most of the interview consisted of the CNN interviewer asking the Sheriff whether he was at all disturbed or concerned about the outcome, and the Sheriff defending his officers and their training protocols. This was repeated three or four times, nearly to the point of absurdity.

Police agencies need to understand that "trust us, we're experts" doesn't work as a defense in public when you just shot an unarmed man in his own driveway. Your officers made a mistake. Falling back on police procedure and saying that they followed proper protocol raises a far more troubling prospect: that we have created a system in which police can shoot whoever they want, whenever they want. I don't think anybody - Republican or Democrat, black or white - wants to live in that society (even though some apparently already do).

Precisely because police are given license to carry and use weapons, the standards on their conduct are supposed to be higher, not lower. Moreover, appeals to "expertise" contradict the reality of a democratic society: the police don't get to make the rules, they just get to enforce them. The rest of us are supposed to decide what the rules are, and hold police and other government officials accountable for the results. Every time a Sheriff or a police chief gets up and makes the "trust us, we're experts, you just don't understand" argument, he is essentially arguing for a police state: shut up and let us decide what's best for you, even if that means shooting the occasional unarmed 60 year old man with a bad back.

There's a self-defeating irony in this as well. Police organizations have been pretty steadfast in their opposition to the NRA's "everybody should be armed" proposals, because they understand that if everybody is armed their officers are at greater risk. But every time they make a mistake like this, they increase private citizens' security dilemmas and make it more likely that individuals will seek to arm themselves - including against the police. Again, if your desire is to make the world less violent and more safe this is a pretty boneheaded way of going about it.

The investigation in this case has been turned over to state authorities, who will hopefully be both thorough and swift. But we need to have a larger conversation as citizens about when we think it's justified for police to use deadly force or not. They work for us, and they answer to us. I hope that this case might raise an opportunity to advance that conversation, because there are too many (defined as any number > 0) unarmed citizens being gunned down by police.

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