There have been many calls for dialogue and empathy in the wake of last week’s horrible events in Dallas, Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights, Minnesota.
Dialogue and empathy are excellent and useful things, but two black men did not die at police hands last week because of what someone did or did not say or feel; they died because of what the police did. The protest march at which a dozen Dallas officers were shot – five fatally – by an apparent lone sniper was not made necessary because America was unaware that it has a problem with the way it polices African-American communities. Nobody missed the irony that the Dallas police became targets even as they were providing exactly the selfless and sympathetic public protection that the marchers were demanding for the rest of the country.
Philando Castile, a school cafeteria supervisor, was pulled over by an officer in Falcon Heights for having a broken taillight. He was soon dead of multiple gunshot wounds; the aftermath of the shooting was livestreamed to Facebook by his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who was in the car along with her 4-year-old daughter. The police detained Reynolds without charge for eight hours following the shooting, while her video went viral. Castile’s mother later observed that he died for “being black in the wrong place.”
Castile would be alive today if he had not been pulled over. A broken taillight is a popular excuse for law enforcement to stop a driver to demand identification, and in numerous jurisdictions those traffic stops have been shown to target minorities disproportionately. Besides racial bias, such stops can be motivated by money: Falcon Heights hires police from a neighboring jurisdiction to enforce its laws, and in return those contract cops deliver fine revenue that is significant to the municipal budget.
Walter Scott was similarly pulled over by police in North Charleston, South Carolina, in April 2015 for a malfunctioning brake light. Scott, who had faced legal difficulties over child support and other issues in the past, bolted from his car. The pursuing officer, Michael Slager, shot Scott multiple times in the back as he ran away – a shooting captured on video by a passerby. Slager was indicted for murder. He is free on bail (but confined mainly to his home) pending a trial scheduled for October.
Eric Garner was placed in a chokehold and pulled to the ground by New York City police, who approached him two summers ago on suspicion of selling “loosies,” or untaxed cigarettes. While on the ground, Garner told officers 11 times that he couldn’t breathe; he lost consciousness and was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. A Staten Island grand jury refused to return any indictments against police.
Alton Sterling was selling CDs in a parking lot in Baton Rouge where he regularly did business when police approached him, reportedly after receiving a call from a homeless person who said Sterling had a gun. Openly carrying a weapon is generally legal in Louisiana, and permits to carry concealed weapons are readily available to most people. Two officers pinned Sterling to the pavement, and while he was down, one of the officers fired into his chest at point-blank range. This scene, too, was captured on video.
During the administration of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the police in New York City engaged in an orgy of stop-and-frisk interactions, reaching nearly 1,900 per day at one point. Most of those who were stopped were nonwhite, and most of them were let go; some others were intimidated or coerced into emptying their pockets (which the police had no right to search under the circumstances) and were charged for minor drug possession or other offenses.
Every one of those stops was an invitation to a disastrous mistake. That none happened – at least none that came to broad national attention – is a testament to the good luck or good training of New York City police, or more likely to both. But it was an unjustified risk, as well as a horrendous imposition on the city’s minority residents. Under pressure from courts and later under orders from current Mayor Bill de Blasio, the stop-and-frisk numbers later declined dramatically. New York City crime rates have ticked upwards, but that is part of a broader national trend that does not appear closely related to the warrantless street frisks.
Here’s a suggestion that goes beyond calls for talk and mutual understanding: If we want cops to be seen by everyone as protectors and crime-fighters, let’s use them that way. They should not be tax collectors; they should not be auto inspectors; they should not be Customs agents looking for large sums of cash to seize. Traffic stops should be made for offenses that endanger public safety, not to generate revenue. Fines from such stops should revert to state treasuries to eliminate the incentives for local governments to target minorities and nonresidents. Take away the “broken taillight” excuse for random stops and people like Walter Scott and Philandro Castile will have a better chance of dying a natural death. If someone like Eric Garner is selling untaxed cigarettes, send the state tax department, not the cops. If you want African-American witnesses to cooperate with police, stop putting them in handcuffs, as Minnesota officers did to Diamond Reynolds in front of her little girl.
And if a man selling CDs in a parking lot might have a gun, which could be perfectly legal in that jurisdiction, don’t start the interaction by tackling him to the pavement. Police cars have loudspeakers. Cops can place themselves at a safe distance and instruct an individual to create a safe situation for everyone to have a civil conversation – which is how you end up with dialogue and empathy. If you want to change outcomes, you start by changing behavior.