Cops — Bad Boys Bad Boys
It just keeps happening over and over again, as if America was the Bill Murray character in “Groundhog Day.” The latest was Apr 4th (but not really, as we’ll see): another unarmed black man shot dead by a white police officer. This time it was in South Carolina. Walter Scott, 50, was stopped for a broken taillight. He was afraid there might be a warrant on him for late child support, so he ran. The officer shot him eight times in the back. It was “self defense,” until a few days later the film shot by a witness appeared, after which the officer was fired and also charged with murder. And this is the exception, being charged. I doubt he’ll be convicted, unless it’s something like 3rd degree manslaughter.
As I was writing the first draft of the above paragraph, it happened again! Monday, April 13, in Tulsa, OK, a 44-yr-old black man named Eric Harris, was apprehended for selling an illegal gun. He no longer had it on him, was on his stomach with a cop’s knee on his neck, but still struggling. That’s when 73-yr-old “reserve deputy” Bob Bates yelled “Taser!” He says he thought he was pulling it, but ended up shooting Harris. You hear him say on the tape: “Sorry, I shot him.” Harris yells “I lost my breath” and the cop with knee on neck answers: “F**k your breath,” and Harris dies. Bates is an insurance executive and big donor to the department, besides being the Sheriff’s best friend. Fifty years ago he trained to be an officer but flunked out. Do you see where this is going? So he wants to play cop and go on a ride-along with a violent crime task force, fine, but stay in the car! How in the HELL does this guy have access to a taser, let alone a gun? The mind boggles. Again, it’s another bead on a long string of beads. Let me remind you of just what we’ve seen in the last year.
Milwaukee, WI, Apr. 30th, 2014 — Dontre Hamilton, a black man with a history of mental illness, was sleeping on a park bench. Two other officers had seen him earlier, thought nothing of it, and moved on. White Officer Christopher Manney approached and began frisking him, a struggle ensued, and Hamilton was shot fourteen times. No indictment.
Staten Island, NY, Jul. 17, 2014 — Eric Garner, a 43-yr-old black man, had been selling “onesies,” single cigarettes, and the NYPD knew it. The approached and tried to arrest him, he wasn’t having any of it, they got him down, and one officer applied a choke hold banned by the department. On the video you can hear Garner saying, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” The officer eventually releases the hold, several other cops are standing around, and no one even goes to check the man’s vital signs. It’s a truly chilling sight.
Beavercreek, OH, Aug. 5, 2014 — John Crawford III, a 22-yr-old black man, was in a WalMart and was going to buy a BB gun for his son. He was carrying it around the store, someone said he was waving it about and pointing (no one has come forward, though). He was shot dead by two white cops. One of them, Officer Sean C. Williams, had also been involved in the department’s only other fatal shooting in its history. No charges, no indictment.
Ferguson, MO, Aug. 9. only four days later, was the Michael Brown shooting. This is the one that probably everyone is familiar with. Population about 30,000, around 70% black, but only 3 of 53 Ferguson cops is white. It opened a nasty can of even worse stuff, which I’ll get into later. No charges, no indictment.
Florence, CA, Aug 11. only two days after Ferguson — a mentally ill black man, 25-yr-old Ezell Ford, was walking down the street. It’s unclear why police stopped him. Witnesses said people were yelling “He’s got mental problems,” police say he went for one of their guns. At any rate, he was shot multiple times in the back while down on the ground. No charges.
Sarasota Springs, UT (population 93% white) Sep. 10, 2014 — 22-yr-old Darrien Hunt, an unarmed black man, was shot dead by white police while supposedly threatening them with a sword, which his family says was a fake purchased at a gift shop. Other witnesses saw no threatening behavior. No charges — “justifiable homicide.”
Cleveland, OH, Nov. 23, 2014 — 12-yr-old Tamir Rice was spotted playing at in a playground with a toy that looked a lot like an assault weapon. Someone called it in, a squad car drove up, and in two seconds — pop-pop-pop and Tamir was dead. His 14-yr-old sister was handcuffed when she ran up to help him. The killer was Officer Timothy Loehmann, who had previously been employed at a nearby department, and found to be “unfit for duty.” His record didn’t follow him; it’s the so-called “thin blue line,” police all protecting each other. No charges, no indictment. A police spokesman said, “Children need to know that guns are not toys.” To which I would add and toys are not guns, either.
Bridgeton, NJ, Dec. 30, 2014 — Jerame Reid, a 36-yr-old unarmed black man, was shot by officers as he tries to get out of a car with his hands up. He’d been told not to move, and one of the cops was black, but the result was the same — shot multiple times, no charges.
None of this is really new; white men have been killing unarmed black men for over 400 years in this country. It just seems to have taken on epidemic proportions, and it illustrates how deeply institutionalized racism is in the American psyche. As Exhibit A, let me introduce the story uncovered last December in North Miami Beach. For targets, officers on the shooting range were using mug shots of black men. All this would be bad enough if it were just racial, but it isn’t. Something very dark has penetrated police forces all across the country, in the way they have been interacting, and overreacting.
Take the case in Auburn, WA, in 2012. Dustin Theoharis, a Caucasian man, was renting a basement apartment and police had a warrant for someone else in the house, whom they had already apprehended on a weapons charge. So as they searched the rest of the house for weapons, they opened Dustin’s door, pointing their guns. When he reached for his ID they shot him 16 times, believing he was going for a gun. From the cops’ point of view, what if the guy was telling the truth or reaching for a weapon? A lawsuit is pending.
Pasco, WA, Feb. 10, 2015 — Antonio Zambrano-Montes, an immigrant orchard worker, had been reported throwing rocks at cars. Police chased him on foot through a busy intersection, he stopped and turned around, and they drilled him 13 times. No charges. As I was doing research for this article on Friday, Apr. 10, I was listening to the news, and two more incidents had taken place that day. In Virginia Beach, VA, a 17-yr old was tased repeatedly for not getting out of his car fast enough. And in San Bernardino Co, CA, a man running from police had given up and lay down on the ground in spread eagle fashion. About a dozen pursuing officers kicked (17), punched (37), or hit him with a baton (4). Thirteen of the blows were to the head. Both these guys were white; possibly because there were no available unarmed black men in the vicinity.
Police brutality isn’t new, either, but it seems to be getting a lot of press lately, and only part of the reason is the ubiquity of camera phones. There’s been a major change in police culture in the last decade or so. I heard an interview with a woman who teaches at a police academy, I wish I’d gotten her name. She said the overall attitude is different now. Where before the emphasis was on more community policing and de-escalating situations, now it’s more like “You don’t take nothin’ from anybody!” I seem to remember, and it wasn’t that long ago, that written on the side of squad cars was “To Protect and Serve.” Was I just imagining that? Cops used to be called peace officers, I seem to remember. Now they are involved in law en-FORCE-ment. The policy for use of force has changed dramatically. For some reason I can’t fathom, search warrants nowadays are as likely to be announced with a SWAT team and battering ram, as with a polite knock. And many’s the time when they had the wrong friggin’ address.
Add to all this the massive militarization of police forces across the country. It began in the mid 1990s, with the “1033 Program,” in which unused or obsolete military equipment was passed on to local police departments. Mine-proof armored cars, enough high-tech gear and weaponry to make them look like an invading force from another planet. It’s intimidating, and that appears to be the purpose. This kind of position tends to provoke confrontation. I’m reminded of one of the most revealing Freudian slips ever, from then Chicago Major Richard Daley, after the 1968 Democratic Convention: “The police are not there to create disorder, the police are there to preserve disorder.” We all heard about the nut in New York who walked up to a squad car and shot both officers dead. That’s terrible, but as long as the populace feels the police are at war with them, unfortunately there will be more of these incidents. It’s gotten so bad that in small communities and neighborhoods across the country, people are forming cop-watches, like the neighborhood watches to look for crime, these are to watch for police activity, and record or witness it — to protect themselves from the very police who have taken an oath to protect them. How insane is that?
Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m all for the presence of police, given the alternative. I believe the great majority of them are good and decent people, but we seen to never hear about them. When I was a kid my dad told me that every day on the job, the police have to deal with the very worst kinds of humanity, so it can perhaps be understood that they get a little tense sometimes. The point I want to make is that a lot of cops these days have short fuses, and they either need to get counseling or find another profession. We have to get rid of bad cops. There are authority types, bullies, maybe vets with PTSD addicted to the intensity, that are ending up on the police force. Unfortunately their unions make it difficult to do that, and if you’ve read much of my stuff, this may be the only time I speak against unions. In spite of all this, I have some possible solutions to offer.
- There needs to be much better screening, specifically psychological, to ensure that we minimize the number of psychotics running around with badges and guns.
- Better training is essential. Looking back at the lists above, there were three unarmed men with mental problems needlessly gunned down by police. Since Reagan decimated the mental illness infrastructure, there are a lot of people with mental health issues. Police need to be more efficient in dealing with them.
- Pay them better. Every time an officer pulls someone over or has to get involved in a situation, it could be their last day on earth. Think about that, and think about this: better pay will attract better and more qualified people.
The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. James Baldwin, 1966