”B” As In Baltimore
Over the weekend, the nation saw again the unfortunate deadly play out of an interaction between law enforcement and an African American. On this occasion, neither guns nor Tasers were not involved. A detail explanation has not been released but video has shown the victim, Freddie Grey, being hauled to a police van, apparently unable to walk, and placed inside. Police report that Grey was later transferred to an Ambulance when it was recognized he could not breath. Grey died in the hospital two days later of complication from a broken spinal column.
On Saturday, protest marchers turned violent and the Grey incident became national news.
In Baltimore, the mayor and police chief are African Americans. Both are well aware of the history of race inspired conflict with law enforcement.
Baltimore, as with many other large cities, has “haves” and “have nots”. And you might correctly guess that the have nots are mostly African Americans. (It should not be assumed that most African Americans are have nots. In Baltimore many African Americans have successfully entered the middle class or have become successful in the arts and professions.) I make this distinction because the world police see when they drive through their district depends on demographic who lives there. In Baltimore, the troubled areas are ones high with poverty and unfortunately, populated by African Americans.
Work with me for a moment.
I am not implying that being poor or being African American justifies Grey’s treatment any more than police shooting six or more times and killing unarmed African Americans in Ferguson or in Florida, Georgia, or South Carolina is to be acceptable. It seems in all these cases police use of force was excessive.
The question most are asking is why?
The African American community answers unhesitatingly police action stems from racist beliefs. End of story. Hmmm.
I suspect that treating these incidents purely as a result of racism misses the larger view. Diagnosing only racism will also inhibit finding shorter term fixes. Prejudices are deeply held views and are established in our minds on an emotional not logical basis. While not ruling out racism, there are other reasons this string of “police on black man” altercations have taken place. More importantly, these other reasons could lead to reducing violent out comes.
First we must begin with just who are police anyways? Normally they are not social workers nor psychologists. Most lack college education. Police are everyday people who have an aptitude to see things as black or white. The law says this, you did that, and I’m arresting you for this violation.
Second, police have been issued lethal weapons and receive training on how to use weapons. The nature of the training, however, leans heavily to how the weapon can be used to kill someone else (and save the police officer’s life). If you draw your gun, shoot to kill, otherwise the other person may kill you. Hmmm.
Third, the routine day for many police officers brings them in contact with the less glamorous elements of society. Mental illness, drug dealers, and homeless/illiterate people are common experiences in many officers’ daily rounds. Most police are people whose first instinct is not to feel empathy. When they suspect there has been a violation of some law, the urge to do “police work” quickly outweighs the value of “understanding before acting”.
Fourth, the fatal combination normally arises after the officer’s verbal commands are ineffective. The officer most likely feels he must escalate his use of force in order to get the alleged law breakers attention. If the gun is used, six, seven, eight bullets can stream out of the muzzle before the suspect drops. These results are usually fatal. If the officer uses physical force, including Tasers, he/she is usually assisted with the help of other officers.
In these situations, frustration and disgust fill the police officers. Maybe the idea that the suspects both deserve and would benefit from a good knock-around should be the expected outcome. Hmmm.
Of course each occasion or situation is different. And of course each police officer approaches each suspect with different amounts of empathy and understanding. Extreme police treatment of suspects is not the rule, largely because most people obey the officer’s instructions. When it happens, however, the outcomes are to frequently not good.
Baltimore will soon release its findings of what happened to Freddie Grey. Most likely Mr Grey was or was mistaken as a legitimate suspect, and will have refused to cooperate with the police. From all that we know at this point, the arresting officers used excessive force and severely injured Mr. Grey. (We don’t know why.) The spinal injury probably began in the arrest process and was exacerbated during the “unseat belt buckled” police van transportation.
No one likely meant fatal harm to Mr Grey. It just happened.
Imagining how this incident could be avoided in the future certainly involves heavy doses of police training. Avoidance could also include new police hirings where officers with more empathetic skills were added to the force. And the public needs training too.
With respect to Baltimore citizens, all demographics, should be made aware of what a day in an officer’s life feels and looks like. Police body cameras, professional sound and video recordings, and well developed documentaries could make all citizens more aware of what behavior are likely to illicit professional police response and which ones are likely to lead to conflict.
In other words, we must remember that police are necessary to protect us all from “really bad people”. If ordinary people act like “bad” people, how can we expect the police to know the difference? With more video and sound reproductions of what actually happened, we can learn whose behavior, citizens or police, is at fault when things go astray.
At the same time, efforts are needed to broaden police training (like anger management) and how to shoot “not to kill”.