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Friday, October 21, 2016

Maybe some people didn’t understand the question.

It was posed in this space a few weeks ago by Tracy, a self-described 55-year-old white woman from Texas who is sick and tired of the mounting litany of police violence against unarmed African-American boys and men. She wanted to know what actions she, as an average person, might take to help bring about change. “What can I do?” she asked.

I thought the question so powerful and poignant that I decided to devote a series of columns to answering it. I invited readers to offer answers of their own.

It will be sometime deep in summer before I finish digging out from under the 700-plus emails that poured in as a result. Many brought intriguing and creative suggestions — civilian review boards, policy changes, body cams — that we’ll discuss in future columns. But many other readers thought the answer lay with black people improving their behavior.

One, for instance, decried a “breakdown of the black family.”

Another wrote, “Always obey, no matter what, a police officer.”

Still another advised: “Stop fornicating. Live a conservative lifestyle.”

Coincidentally enough, as I was reading these emails, police in Dover, Delaware, were releasing dashcam video of a 2013 incident in which Cpl. Thomas Webster, responding to a call of a fight at a gas station, rolls up on Lateef Dickerson, who is standing there with his hands raised. Webster orders him to the ground. As Dickerson, a 30-year-old black man, is complying, Webster kicks him in the face, breaking his jaw and knocking him unconscious.

That damning video notwithstanding, a grand jury initially declined to indict Webster and he returned to duty. Only this month did a second jury finally indict him on felony assault charges.

So I wrote to some of my correspondents asking them to explain how experiences such as these reflect the breakdown of the black family. Obey the police? That’s what Dickerson was doing when he was kicked. And how, one wonders, would sexual prudence or Tea Party membership have saved him from having his jaw staved in?

To date, I have seen no satisfactory response.

Let’s be clear. The question of what African-American people can and should do in the cause of African-American uplift is a valid one. But to suggest — as many readers did, as certain pundits and politicians have — that uplift is the answer to police brutality is to miss the point. The issue here is not: What can black people do to improve themselves? Rather, it is: What can we do to stop cops from assaulting them for no reason?

We might begin with something as simple and self-evident as demanding police accountability. It should tell you something that it took two grand juries to indict Webster, even though that video leaves no doubt of his guilt. It should also tell you something that he did this knowing the camera was on. Obviously, he didn’t fear any consequences. Why should he? America’s bizarre terror of black men is so epidemic that a police officer will often get the benefit of the doubt even when there is no doubt.

The “reasoning” goes something like this: If the cops beat you, they must have had a reason. And obviously you did something wrong or they wouldn’t have shot you.

In a nation where those naive assumptions are very common, who can be surprised that indictments and convictions of bad cops are very rare? In such a nation, the brazen misbehavior of a Cpl. Webster becomes not simply predictable, but inevitable. So it’s deeply frustrating that some of us believe police brutality can be fixed by African-American self-improvement.

You will never solve any problem you can’t even bring yourself to face.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL, 33132. Readers may contact him via email at [email protected]

Photo: Light Brigading via Flickr

  • FireBaron

    Leonard, you, I and many others probably believe that the majority of police officers are sincere about doing their jobs the right way. One problem is you get a bunch of yahoos on a power kick and they give a bad rap to all cops.

    The underlying to the above is how do you screen police applicants to keep out the ones who will eventually cause grief? Should police departments and academies reject applicants out of hand whose profile screening shows this tendency? Definitely. Once people see that police departments would rather reject folks like this, instead of accepting a warm body and hope it works out, their overall performance and opinion will increase tremendously!

    So, it comes down to “we need better cops on the street”. The question is what are folks like you and I going to do to make it happen?

    • Sand_Cat

      How do you screen out the “good” cop who will stand by and do nothing while his partner abuses a “suspect”?
      I must disagree: the problem is police culture, and it seems to affect more than just a few. There is a strong “us vs them” mentality, with anyone who questions any police action joining criminals and political dissidents as part of “them.”

  • asiaman496

    Afromerican (my coined word sorry) neighborhood then all the cops should be Afromerican…..end of story…

    • wjca

      I have to disagree. Strongly.

      It shouldn’t take having the police be members of your particular racial, ethnic, or whatever group in order for you to get fairly treated.

    • Sand_Cat

      The issue is a POLICE problem. I seem to remember reading that black cops were almost as likely to abuse black people as white cops; in fact, several of those indicted in Baltimore are black.
      Black people (and other poor people and minorities) are simply the people the police have the easiest time abusing without consequences; their conduct will be justified by the millions of racists still out there, or by GOP supporters who clamor constantly for further abuse of the poor.

  • David

    The problem is going to be solved very soon, when in about 20 or 30 years we are no longer a white majority country. Shortly after that most of our authority figures will be people of color, and the shoe will be on the other foot. Then the white’s will wish they had stopped the culture of police abusing minorities before they were the minority being abused. What goes around comes around they say, and whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, so maybe it will turn out to be character building for us all. If I live to see it I am only going to wear jumpsuits with out a belt so they can’t say I reached for my waistband. They are going to have to have a throw down to cover up my shooting. Of course I currently live in Mexico and they already have marshal law here, so I am used to obeying groups of Hispanic men with machine guns.

  • Carolyn1520

    Thank you for addressing this issue with some real thought.
    I lived in Baltimore for most of my life. The issue was never about racial tensions between neighbors. There are certain areas of town I wouldn’t go in at night but it has nothing to do with race.
    I think we all need to demand higher standards for those we hire to protect and serve. If that means getting rid of the ones who don’t comply with those requirements so be it.
    Instead of good cops getting “the treatment” when they try to police their own and stop brutality and other bad behavior they should be commended. It’s not a boys club but that’s the mentality. That goes for doctors covering for each others mistakes and churches protecting their own by moving them around so they can abuse in new places.
    Now we have cops in Baltimore who are subtly threatening they won’t be doing their jobs because of the cops who were arrested. A news story with a cop who had his identity masked inferred it. It sounds to me, like they need to lose their jobs. There’s plenty of people who would be willing to meet higher standards to replace them.

  • Allan Richardson

    One thing which would help in cases of shooting (but not beating; hopefully not many bad cops will switch to beating and kicking, but at least more victims will survive to testify) is a GUN CAM. Require all police issue firearms to be equipped with a camera pointed down the barrel. Between pulling the trigger and firing, the camera would take a snapshot of what the officer is shooting at, store it in a noneraseable chip, and (except in remote areas and after natural disasters which render the cellular data networks inoperable) send it over a 4G LTE network to a server maintained by the court, publicly accessible (after a long enough delay, say 15-30 minutes) to avoid enabling criminals using it to locate the police in real time. If the camera is dead or its lens is covered, the gun would NOT FIRE, thus preventing bad cops from deliberately evading the requirement that all shots be accompanied by SNAP shots.

    If this had been the case in the Trayvon Martin and Brown shootings, there would have been no need to speculate on where the shooter and victim were, and which way the victim was headed, when EACH shot was fired. Well, not Trayvon Martin, because his killer was not a cop; but maybe this should be required of ALL firearms? Or at least, require security guards and neighborhood watch volunteers while ON DUTY to carry only a camera-equipped firearm (and to wear insignia identifying them as temporarily deputized officers of the law, not just random gun-toting civilians who MIGHT be criminals looking for prey).

    And in the opposite case, where an officer shoots an obviously ARMED attacker, the camera could be combined (via timestamp matching) with video and audio from the dash and/or body cameras, making the officer’s innocence OBVIOUS even to those who may be inclined to give the attacker the benefit of the doubt, rather than the officer, and thus calming down community outrage with EVIDENCE rather than merely pro-cop talking points.

    Of course, just like the ring-locked gun which is available overseas but not sold here because of THREATS TO THE LIFE of the one dealer who tried to sell it, there would be a backlash from the NRA for fear that one day it will no longer be possible to shoot someone and be assured of keeping it a secret.