Rolling Back the Police State

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Rolling Back the Police State

(Photo: Jim Watson/Getty Images)

We’ve heard the lie before. 

When accused murderer and former North Charleston Patrolman Michael Thomas Slager’s lawyer said his client “felt threatened,” it wasn't his life that had been threatened. What was threatened was his sense of authority.  Sometimes, that can be the beginning of a life-ending escalation. 

Running away is a threat to some officers’ sense of authority.  It certainly was a factor in the death of Walter Lamer Scott, a 50-year-old veteran and father of four. Scott was unarmed, though it appears that Slager, thirty-three, tried to plant the taser he used on Scott near his body to corroborate his tale of the dead man trying to use the taser on him.  

Unfortunately for Slager, a young barber, Dominican immigrant Feidin Santana, on his way to work with his camera phone in his hand, captured the crime on his device.

The video shows Slager firing eight shots at a fleeing Scott. Four bullets hit Scott in the back and one hit him in the ear. Two of the shots were fatal.

Santana proved what many blacks take as gospel: Police lie.  

Even before Scott’s killing, there existed a racial confidence gap over police behavior. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, “58 percent of white respondents said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in police, while only 31 percent of black respondents said so.” Also, blacks gave police officers lower honesty and ethics ratings than whites. In Gallup data from 2010-2013, “59 percent of whites say the honesty and ethics of police officers is very high or high, compared with 45 percent of blacks.”

Then there’s the act of shooting someone in the back. 

When I was growing up watching cowboy movies, the “code of the West” held that shooting  someone in the back was a cowardly thing to do.  But handcuffing a dead or dying man lying face down in the dirt to cover up your misdeed is as low-down as you can go.

Other racial imagery comes to mind watching Santana’s unwitting ‘"snuff film." An enslaved African unsuccessfully trying to escaping his deadly overseer. Or a black sharecropper or civil-rights worker trying to elude the Klansman’s noose.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey was smart in swiftly bringing first-degree murder charges against Slager after seeing the video. Yet the nature of Slager’s stop—a busted brake light and the actions of the officers who arrived on scene immediately after the killing—are further hints of problems not only with the police but also with the mayor’s administration.  

Just as in Ferguson, Missouri, the Department of Justice will probably uncover the economic realities of running a town on the backs of the poor and working class through excessive ticketing, fees and fines.  

Diversity is a problem in Summey’s police department. North Charleston has a 47 percent black population, yet the town's police department is 80 percent white.

But hiring more black officers isn’t necessarily a cure all for a police department with a pattern of discriminatory race relations. Black officers can and do adopt the practices of their white counterparts. The first cop to arrive at the scene after Scott’s killing was black. The first official police report said that the officers performed first aid. They did not. The black officer arrived to assist Slager, not the dying man.  And he participated in an attempted cover-up if he seconded Slager's initial report in any way.

Racists harbor the illusion that it’s just black people getting killed and they deserve it. Just read the comment sections of the various news reports on such incidents. Some folks will always believe that black people are inherently criminal. So when police and media mention drugs, guns, gang-related activities, or prior arrests, it validates their beliefs. Worse are those who don’t consider themselves racists, black and white, who hear the indicting buzzwords, turn a blind eye, and tune it out. 

Some things are clear. Police shoot at blacks more often than they shoot at whites, and they disproportionately kill them.

For example: Between 2010 and 2014, police in South Carolina shot at least 209 suspects and killed seventy-nine of them. 101 of these suspects were black and 67 were white, according to data gathered by The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C. Among those killed, thirty-four were black and forty-one were white (in four cases the suspect's race is unclear). In only three of the 209 cases were officers investigated for misuse of force, and no one was convicted. 

Nationally, 1,215 white people and 932 blacks died at police hands from 2003 to 2009, according to the Justice Department. Other analysts put the number of police homicides between 2003 and 2111 at 7,427, an average of 928 per year.  Nobody really knows the exact figure because police organizations don’t report them.

We do know that since the beginning of the year to April 2,  there have been almost 300 police killings, according to the Killed by Police organization. Police have killed 115 people in the month of March alone. Not just blacks, not just men, but men and women, old, young, mentally ill, white and Latino. 

So, how can we reform the police and end this epidemic of police violence? 

Here are some suggestions:

  • Use of body cameras.  Many police organizations already use dash cams and have pretty much accepted body cameras as the coming thing.  There must be penalties, including losing your job, for tampering with or disabling a body cam.
  • Community policing where police actually get out their cars and interact with community residents.  This includes ending the different manifestations of “stop and frisk”, the proliferation of K-9 units reminiscent of Bull Connor policing and apartheid South Africa and rejecting the failed “broken windows” policing practice.
  • Grassroots organizing and mobilization across race and ethnic lines. It used to be that the local NAACP chapters, at least in South Carolina, were where people went to report police abuse. The NAACP and organizations like Black Lives Matters need to reclaim that role—looking out for the citizens and taking these reports so that we can know what is going on out there in the community and act on it.  Young people like Feidin Santana who was courageous enough to record what he witnessed must fill leadership roles.  But young and old have to work together.  Bad policing didn’t just start with the current generation. 
  • Independent citizen review boards with subpoena power and the power to submit charges against rogue cops to a grand jury.  We can’t allow police to police themselves.  And prosecutors more often than not unquestioningly defend the actions of police. We need to set up grassroots citizens’ tribunals to collect policing data.
  • We need to take a long look at the use of force and curtail, if not end, the practice of shoot to kill.  In the last five years in South Carolina only four police officers have been killed in the line of duty.  As tragic as those deaths were,  there is no empirical data that would substantiate an epidemic of violence against police officers in this state or country.  Yet  the idea that police have the right to shoot to kill remains. Officers brought to trial for killing civilians often get a misdemeanor charge. That's inhuman.  The victims have their due process rights nullified and receive the death penalty. The killers get a misdemeanor.
  • We need to know for certain how many people die at the hands of police.  Not knowing the real numbers undermines trust in law enforcement.  Police should keep records for every time they fire their weapons and what happens when those bullets leave those chambers.
  • Re-evaluate the military-to-police pipeline. Many municipalities hire people out of the military because of their service or combat experience.  Yet serving the people isn’t combat.  The citizens are not “enemy combatants.”  It’s not “us versus them.” 
  • We need to roll back the militarization of police departments, decrease in the size and use of SWAT teams, limit no-knock searches, return and reject surplus war-fighting equipment and weapons for police.
  • We need to end the war on drugs, which feeds racial profiling.  That means that functionally, communities of color have to take the lead in advocacy for legalization and decriminalizing drugs.
  • We need psychological testing to weed out cops who are racist and sadistic and who believe that black people are subhuman and that cops are above the law.
  • We need a Department of Justice review of police jurisdictions and departments with questionable community relations, much like the review of the Ferguson Police Department, to assess the economic impact and fairness of fines, fees and other such charges levied against citizens as well as the employment practices of those departments.

There have long been allegations of poor race relations and abusive police in North Charleston. Same story in Ferguson.  It the same story with small and large police departments that operate in predominantly black and low-income neighborhoods all over the United States. 

Black people endure police talking to them disrespectfully.  They live with the reality that a traffic stop can often be a situation where your life is in danger by someone who is supposed be protecting you.  We know how police act when they think nobody is watching and they think whites simply don’t care or, worse, support what they do.

If that film of Walter Scott hadn’t come out, the police would have covered up this murder. Scott’s family sees a measure of justice being served with the murder charge against the officer.  

If you believe your eyes,  Slager's conduct is inconsistent with Tennessee v. Garner, a 1985 Supreme Court ruling which held that officers can use deadly force against a fleeing suspect only when there is probable cause that the suspect “poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.”

I believe my eyes.  Yet I still believe Slager is presumed innocent until proven guilty.  That he deserves the due process that he didn’t extend to Walter Scott.  I don’t wish to seem him suffer the same fate as Scott.  

 Some police believe that killing black people, and treating them as subhuman when they think no one is looking, makes their lives safer. It does not. 

Bad cops make good cops bad when they turn a blind eye to abuse and injustice.

Kevin Alexander Gray

Kevin Alexander Gray is a writer and activist living in South Carolina. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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