As the tumult let loose by multiple officer-involved shootings continues to play out across the country, there have been signs of an enthusiastic retreat to tribal loyalties. Black lives matter. Blue lives matter. President Obama’s appearance at the memorial for officers killed in Dallas brought out critics on both sides. The former Illinois senator drew the ire of activists for his decision not to visit the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile; he’s taken flak from pundits for being too cozy with Black Lives Matter and failing to speak up for police enough. It’s safe, easy, even reassuring to fall back and take up the usual battlelines — to feel like the only options are to side with protesters or police. There is another way to approach this increasingly contentious subject, one that has proven very unpopular but would lead the focus away from identity. All lives matter.*
The idea was taken up by presidential wannabe Martin O’Malley and has bounced around since, but is routinely dismissed for its alleged indifference to the deaths of African-Americans shot in confrontations with police. What’s troubling about the string of high-profile incidents isn’t in the demographics, it’s how quickly some officers resort to deadly force. Any frustration over how Eric Garner and Michael Slager lost their lives would not, and should not, differ if they were Asian or Anglo. But the song remained the same after President Obama addressed the subject from a podium in Europe. “When incidents like this occur, there’s a big chunk of our fellow citizenry that feels as if it’s because of the color of their skin, they are not being treated the same,” Obama said. “And that hurts…that should trouble all of us.”
The trouble with news reports on shootings of African-Americans by white officers is how they’re framed by related statistics on population and the use of deadly force that make it easy to conclude bias is a key factor. The statistics on how other ethnicities are treated by police often go unreported, including the total number of each group shot by police under questionable circumstances; if any related street-level video footage exists it’s been virtually ignored by major media. There is such a case making headlines in Fresno — officers were implicated in the fatal shooting of 19-year-old Dylan Noble. The incident was recorded by lapel cameras and is being investigated by federal authorities. His friends and family gathered at a gas station where the confrontation took place to “demand justice for Dylan.” Some were chanting “white lives matter.”
What’s hard to miss is the regular use of lethal force in situations that hardly seemed to call for it. If there is a good explanation for the deaths of men who were selling compact discs or loose cigarettes, much less the loss of a 12-year-old who was confronted in Cleveland while carrying a toy gun, I haven’t heard it. That means questions remain unanswered. Is it possible for officers to meet resistance with something other than a sidearm? Some new equipment would be useful. Are they sometimes too quick to reach for a pistol if there are other options? A few changes in tactics and training are called for. What about the inevitable investigations? Are they thorough? Impartial? Transparent? There should be a genuine search for answers and a better way to do what is already a difficult job.
It would be easy to lob a few vague ideas about equipment and transparency but there’s a need for something more. In an environment where video footage of police is a common feature on broadcast news — and the ACLU has a “mobile justice” app to help gather it — lapel cameras would be valuable. If used properly they can provide a more complete record of any confrontation than footage from an on-the-scene mobile phone. Both would be useful for an after-incident review, one that could be conducted by an independent group made up of retired FBI, local clergy, and activist leaders. This panel can interview officers and witnesses, review any related physical evidence and submit its findings to local or state attorneys, but would lack the authority to issue subpoenas or file charges. At this point it’s tough to know what will be needed to build trust, maybe a few shouting matches and confession sessions, anything to keep both sides talking…and listening.
* I do not mean to direct any criticism towards Black Lives Matter or tip my hat to people like Rudy Guliani and Sarah Palin.
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