The problem with police goes beyond racism

Another week, another police killing of an African-American man caught on video, this time in Minneapolis:

Four Minneapolis police officers have been fired for their involvement in the death of a black man who was held down with a knee as he protested that he couldn’t breathe, officials said Tuesday.

The FBI is investigating the incident, which drew widespread condemnation of the officers after a video showing part of the encounter circulated on social media.

The death of George Floyd, 46, drew hundreds of people to the streets of Minneapolis on Tuesday.

Protesters — many wearing face masks — held “I can’t breathe” signs and chanted together near the site of Monday’s incident. Some motorists honked in support.


Mayor Jacob Frey has said the technique used to pin George Floyd’s head to the ground was against department regulations.

After several minutes of pleading with an officer pressing a knee to the back of his neck, the man appeared motionless, his eyes shut, his head against the pavement.

Frey, speaking during a town hall streamed on Facebook, said the officer had no reason to employ the hold on the man’s neck.

“The technique that was used is not permitted; is not a technique that our officers get trained in on,” he said. “And our chief has been very clear on that piece. There is no reason to apply that kind of pressure with a knee to someone’s neck.”

The video shows two officers by the man on the ground — one of them with his knee over the back of the man’s neck. The video did not capture what led up to the arrest or what police described as the man resisting arrest.

“Please, I can’t breathe,” the man said, screaming for several minutes before he became silent. Bystanders urged the officer to release the man from his hold.

When white police officers kill an African-American suspect, there’s really no way to remove racial issues from the case. As Snopes notes, African-Americans and other racial minorities are sadly overrepresented among people killed by American police officers.

And yet, as the same article concedes, a plurality of police shooting victims are not people of color:

Any “analysis” of police killings will of course show that in absolute numbers, more white people are killed in police shootings than black people, because (non-Hispanic) whites comprise a roughly five times greater share of the U.S. population (62% vs. 13%). So any “analysis” that is based on nothing more than absolute numbers and does not take demographics into account is inaccurate and misleading.


According to Fatal Encounters, the database created by former Reno News & Review editor and journalism instructor Burghart (which tracks all deaths resulting from interactions with police), a total of 1,388 people were killed by police in 2015, 318 (23%) of them black, and 560 (40%) of them white. So roughly 23 percent of those killed by any police interaction in 2015 were black and just over 40 percent were white. According to those statistics (adjusted for racial demographics), black people had a 2.7 higher likelihood of being killed by police than whites.

The grim trend has carried over into 2016. …

If systemic racism were the only reason this keeps happening, I suspect these already disturbing numbers would be even more disproportionate than they already are. Not to mention the fact that sometimes – as in the heavily publicized Freddie Gray case in 2015 – some officers involved in the killing of African-American suspects are themselves Black.

(And then there’s this freaking lunatic, who represents everything wrong with American law enforcement, and who had a bad habit of letting people die of dehydration in his jails before he was finally forced out.)

I wonder if the increasing militarization of police forces, as documented in Radley Balko’s excellent, disturbing book Rise of the Warrior Cop, is a major factor. The recent Waco miniseries which aired on Netflix has some major problems – it is way too charitable toward cult leader David Koresh and his inner circle – but there is a very memorable scene in which Michael Shannon’s FBI negotiator character surveys the military equipment deployed by law enforcement and discusses the difference between the mission of police officers and that of the military. Police are supposed to defuse volatile situations; military personnel are trained to kill.

It’s now very common for surplus military equipment to end up in the hands of law enforcement – aided and abetted by the Trump Administration, because of course it would be – and it’s hardly a stretch to imagine a militaristic kill-everything-that-moves mindset trickling down even to the lowest ranking police officers.

When you see the public as potential enemies instead of citizens you’re trying to serve, you’re going to have more and more incidents like the killing of George Floyd. That’s why I say it’s always – always – your duty as a citizen to take out your phone and film whenever you see police arresting a suspect.

I don’t feel this way because I am opposed to the police. I feel this way because I respect police officers – who, like Cst. Heidi Stevenson, regularly put their lives on the line to protect us – and want them to do their jobs properly. A free society must be able to trust its police forces.

By the way, if you’re a Canadian reader feeling characteristically smug about another racially tinged police killing in Donald Trump’s America, stop pretending things like that don’t happen here:

A B.C. woman who uses a walker for mobility has been awarded $55,000 in damages after a judge determined she was “falsely arrested, falsely imprisoned, assaulted and battered” by an RCMP officer in the province’s north.

Irene Joseph was 61 years old when Const. Darrin Meier forced her to the ground and tried to handcuff her outside a Mark’s Work Wearhouse in Smithers back in December 2014.

The officer suspected her of shoplifting, according to a court decision that was posted online this week, but let her go after a search of her purse failed to turn up any stolen merchandise.

Joseph, who is reported to be an elder from the Wet’suwet’en Nation, sued the Attorney General of Canada over the encounter, and a B.C. Supreme Court justice ruled in her favour on Friday.

Ms. Joseph thankfully survived. Otherwise, the cases are remarkably similar. (As I’ve long said, we Canadians are not as similar to Americans as Americans think, but not as different from Americans as we like to think.)

4 thoughts on “The problem with police goes beyond racism

  1. M says:

    Last year I had to put my grown autistic son on a plane to Newfoundland on his own, and even though that’s probably one of the safest flights one could get from here (plus, he and I had jointly made the trip previously in 2018), I was petrified. Police and security can go from normal to gung-ho aggression in the blink of an eye if they believe they’re “justified “. Once that process has started, any wrong move or attempt to reason with them can take things from dangerously tense to potentially fatal in seconds. Since officers tend to target persons with behaviour differences (among others) and an autistic person’s ability to speak can abandon them under stress, right when it is most needed, I had to make my son aware of cases where Canadian police unjustifiably killed disabled persons, as he initially dismissed this as an American problem. Turns out, there are numerous cases right here in Canada.

    We don’t like to think about this because it would call our sense of security around police into question, but it’s a fact that there’s an element of aggression here for which there is no good reason. It also seems apparent that people who are deemed less important or valued for various reasons – disability, race, gender, socioeconomic status, criminal history etc. – seem to suffer from excessive police force disproportionately and the consequences can be, and often are, lethal. It’s good to see that the officers in this particular case were fired, but that often doesn’t happen. The frequent lack of real consequences for such officers perpetuates the problem.

    I know from experience that if I do the same things as a normal person in any social context, I may be suspected of negative intentions while they are unaffected, simply due to appearing different. (Normal people know this, and may use it to their advantage, knowing that I am incapable of effectively defending myself.) But being called a witch in elementary school or a stalker by a rejected love interest isn’t fatal. On the other hand, being picked out of a crowd by police who react aggressively if you try to merely speak to them can get you killed. This begs the question, why are our officers not specifically trained to consider all aspects of a situation, react less aggressively/more assertively, and respond more appropriately at a human level in general? Putting an elderly woman on the ground seems like overkill, even if she had been shoplifting. Kicking an epileptic person twitching unconscious on the floor of a cell (Canada) requires a breathtaking lack of basic empathy. And not everyone who behaves oddly is on drugs, like an autistic youngster taken down and handcuffed in the States for…stimming. Our police should be better trained in disabilities, basic medical conditions, and in analyzing actual hazards before using potentially fatal force.

    (Note: I used to live near Smithers/Burns Lake and area; it was common to see or hear of Indigenous people being what I would call “harassed” by police. Good for them that they are standing up against this.)

  2. M says:

    Waco: Another view in “The Boy who was Raised as a Dog” by Bruce D. Perry and Maia Szalavitz. This guy is a child psychiatrist and provides background which the show ignores entirely. To me, emotional and sexual abusers of young children are a particular breed – first, there is the abuse itself, and then the lifelong mental and emotional effects of abuse at an age at which young persons are just beginning to develop their own identity. Having had a peaceful childhood until age 9-10, I know this was a critically important base in re-determining my own identity after abuse and finding a way forward from there. I’m reminded of a woman who was abused by a clergyman as a very young child, ignored by the Vatican, yet kept trying to frantically reconnect with her religion, while completely failing to reconnect with herself, likely never having had a chance to establish this base in the first place. The Waco children seem to have lived with abuse from an early age, putting it mildly…and there were particular issues for girls.

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