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Police killings – the other side of the story

Why black Americans are genuinely afraid of police presence, and the tactics employed by law enforcement officers that perpetuate these feelings of fear.

It is no secret that recent police shootings in this country have sent shockwaves throughout communities, sparking outrage, protests, and a call for change in legislation.   Undoubtedly, every American knows the most recent names of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile – the last two known black men who were fatally shot by police.  When, in August 2014 Michael Brown was shot and killed by police, a movement seemed to be re-awakened that began with the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012.  Of course, other names come to mind as well.  Who can forget twelve-year-old Tamir Rice who was gunned down in Cleveland, Ohio after police spotted him holding a BB gun, or Sandra Bland, who died in police custody under fairly suspicious circumstances?  Police killings occur all over this country and from coast to coast, minorities have reported that they are scared of police presence and feel uneasy around law enforcement.

Some may scoff at the idea that African Americans in particular feel uncomfortable around police officers.  The argument goes, “If you’re not doing anything wrong, and you’re a law abiding citizen, why fear the police?” This argument makes sense, however, there are several factors that legitimize why black Americans do not feel safe in the presence of police officers.

Jones describes a quick weighing of pros and cons that went on in her head after the police had been called. 

On July 4, 2015, Nikole Hannah-Jones and her family celebrated the holiday by visiting some friends in Long Island.  After a fun barbeque, she and a group of friends decided to walk along the ocean.  Jones was holding the hand of her four-year-old- daughter and walking beside her husband when gunshots rang out.  Chaos erupted as hundreds of people began running away from a young man who had extended his arm and fired several shots along the boardwalk.  Everything was over as quickly as it had begun.  The gunman was there, and then he was gone.  As Jones tried to steady herself and check on her family, she noticed Hunter, a high school intern who was staying with Jones’ family, on the phone.  Unable to imagine why this kid would be on the phone at such a time, Jones asked who she was talking to.  “The police,” Hunter responded.

Jones, and the three friends who had accompanied her to the beach, locked eyes in silence.  Between the four of them, they held six degrees; three were journalists.  They were also black.  On one side, no one had been hurt as far as they knew, the shooter was long gone, and no one had seen the shooter, except maybe for a second or two.  On the other hand, calling the police carried very real risks.  This invited possible disrespect, the potential for physical harm, and maybe even accusations of involvement in the shooting.

Hunter was 16-years-old, biracial, and lived with her white mother in a heavily white area.  She had not been exposed to the experiences many black Americans face, and so calling the police for her was a non-issue.  Hunter spoke with police a total of four times.  By the time she took the fourth call, Hunter looked frightened.  The officer on the other end of the phone asked her “Are you really trying to be helpful, or were you involved in this?” Hunter turned to Jones and asked “Are they going to come get me?” One of Jones’ friends responded jokingly, “See?  That’s why we don’t call them.”

…although racial profiling is illegal as a violation of the Constitution’s promise of equal protection, police officers do it.  Why?  Because it is easy to do, easy to cover up, and officers claim it makes them feel safer.

This story paints a picture of the reality for many black Americans.  Whether educated, or not, whether rich or poor, an increasing amount of black people in this country feel as though they are judged on sight by law enforcement and deemed to be dangerous, even before the first question is asked.  This act of “judging on sight” is racial profiling.  It is real, and it happens every day in this country.

Let’s be real, police officers want to go home to their families at the end of the day, and although racial profiling is illegal as a violation of the Constitution’s promise of equal protection, they do it.  Why? Because it is easy to do, easy to cover up, and officers claim it makes them feel safer.  As recently as this month, an email sent by former Chief of Police Benjamin Fox was discovered that violated the barred practice of racial profiling.  The email was sent in December of 2014 and urged police officers in the Wyckoff, NJ area to watch out for “suspicious black people in white neighborhoods.”  Interestingly, the email also encouraged profiling of “white kids” found in predominantly black neighborhoods who might be trying to buy heroin.  Fox’s email went on to say that he believed police officers should not “dumb down” just to be politically correct.  After an investigation, Fox stepped down as Chief of Police.

In addition, officers have the legal authority to make pretextual stops.  A pretextual stop occurs when a police officer stops a driver for a traffic violation or other minor offense, to allow the officer to investigate a separate and unrelated, suspected criminal offense.  While law enforcement officials maintain that these stops are an important crime-fighting tool, some wonder whether these stops are a tool for law enforcement, or simply a way to engage in “legal discrimination.”

This hits close to home.  The New York Times recently examined traffic stops and arrests in Greensboro, NC and found staggering disparities among black drivers who were pulled over for traffic violations, and their white counterparts; not to mention that police officers were more likely to stop black drivers for no discernible reason more so than whites.

…statistics show that the rate of death by police officers for young black men was five times higher than white men of the same age in 2015

Despite what some may think, the law gives police officers wide latitude to defend themselves and use force against suspects.  The Campbell Law Observer recently published an article that explores the different methods used by police officers, and the legitimate means by which police officers may subdue or detain suspects.  Having said that, statistics show that the rate of death by police officers for young black men was five times higher than white men of the same age in 2015.  According to a study conducted by the Guardian, the final tally of deaths by law enforcement officers in 2015 was 1,134.  Despite only accounting for two percent of the population, black males between the ages of 15 and 34 comprised more than 15 percent of all deaths in 2015.  When the research adds this new finding with mortality data, the indication is that about one in every 65 deaths of young black males in the U.S. is due to a police killing.

The point of this article is not to point fingers or show how terrible law enforcement officials are, because there are many police officers who uphold the law and practice by-the-book conduct.  However, race plays a role in who police stop and question.  Now, whether that role is large or small is debatable, but we do not live in a post-racial society and this fact should be addressed out in the open by law enforcement.

What can be said with confidence is that even today, race is a factor as police officers do their jobs.  As a result, black Americans are becoming increasingly uneasy around law enforcement because of the uncertainty of police reaction in certain situations.

No one has an answer as to why an innocent child was gunned down on the street for playing with a toy gun, nor or can anyone justify the killing of innocent police officers in retaliation for the death of an unarmed black man.  What can be said with confidence is that even today, race is a factor as police officers do their jobs.  As a result, black Americans are becoming increasingly uneasy around law enforcement because of the uncertainty of police reaction in certain situations.

While community involvement and trust is something that must be built over time, it is a necessary feat.  Officer Tommy Norman of the North Little Rock Police Department in Arkansas is one police officer who exemplifies the meaning of true community involvement.  Over the course of 17 years, Norman has become legendary for his commitment to his community and has been featured by several news outlets as he shows love and support for his community.  It seems that it will take thousands of Officer Normans to accomplish the task of community involvement nationwide.  One thing is for sure: if something is not done soon, the violence that has taken place up until now is just the tip of the iceberg.

Kendra Alleyne, Associate Editor Emeritus
About Kendra Alleyne, Associate Editor Emeritus (17 Articles)
Kendra Alleyne is a 2017 graduate of Campbell Law School and served as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer during the 2016-2017 academic year. She is from Lynchburg, Virginia and graduated from Liberty University for a degree in Broadcast Journalism. Over the summer following her first year of law school, Kendra worked as a legal internship at Colon & Associates, where she is currently still interning. Kendra also serves as the Public Relations Chair for Campbell University’s Black Law Student Association.
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