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Friday, December 9, 2016

This will not be a column about Sandra Bland, although it could be.

Certainly there is cause for outrage over the way a Texas state trooper escalated the routine traffic stop of an indignant African-American woman into a violent arrest; she died of an apparent jail cell suicide three days later. But Chuck would say that in habitually defining police violence as a black problem, we make it smaller than it is.

Chuck is a reader who responded to a question I passed on in this space a few months back from another reader, a white woman named Tracy. “What can I do?” she asked, as a private citizen, to fight police brutality against African-Americans?

“My suggestion may seem counter-intuitive,” wrote Chuck, “but here goes: Stop focusing on the racial component and focus on the larger problem. … Of course, the disparity in how people are treated by the police — based on their race — is real. It is shameful. It is deadly. Still, though, it remains a subset (however horrible and painful) of the bigger problem.”

Chuck goes on to say, “No country on earth is policed as we are. We have too many law enforcement agencies and individuals. They are too heavily armed. They are too militarized. They are too quick to violence. They are rarely held accountable. The false narrative that exists regarding the dangers of police work creates an inordinate sense of fear. Mix that with guns and too much authority and you have a problem. We — all of us — have this problem.

“The hyper-violent policing that is practiced in this country is a disgrace. Yes, African-Americans face it at higher rates, but that is all it is … a higher rate of the larger problem.”

By way of illustration, Chuck points to video — you can find it online — of the 2013 arrest of a man he says he knows: David Connor Castellani. The clip, which has no audio, shows Castellani, then 20, yelling and pointing at officers, who are posted down the street, after his ejection from an Atlantic City casino for being underage. Four officers rush him, take him down and begin beating him — a fifth officer soon joins in.

It is after they’ve got him under control, lying on the curb with five officers on top of him, that a sixth officer arrives with a police dog and sets it loose on the young man’s head and neck. Castellani’s injuries required over 200 stitches.

The officers — big surprise — were cleared, while Castellani — shocking! — was indicted on charges that could have put him away for 10 years. Last week, according to his attorney, Jennifer Bonjean, he entered a pretrial diversion program that will leave his record clean. She has filed a federal civil suit on his behalf. Bonjean wants to force Atlantic City, where, she says, “They don’t discipline their officers,” to either stop using canines, or accept some kind of oversight. “This isn’t the 19-frickin’-50s,” she says.

So yes, Chuck has a point, the argument over police brutality sometimes misses the proverbial forest for the proverbial trees. Not that it is invalid to frame the problem in its racial dimensions; as Chuck himself says, when it comes to police violence, people of color seem to get it first and worst, and that deserves discussion. Still, it is too often the case that we — and I include myself — forget that the racial dimension is not the only dimension.

In the process, we exclude from the conversation those who ought to be part of it and forfeit the strength that comes with their numbers. So perhaps one answer to “What can I do?” is this: Broaden the discussion, recognize that this “black” problem is in fact a human rights problem, help those who may feel removed — or safe — from police violence to understand that they are neither.

Maybe David Castellani felt that way once. If so, he probably changed his mind when that dog began biting his head.

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

Illustration: Mario Klingemann (via Flickr — original photo here)