With the death of Walter Scott, the 50-year-old black man shot in the back by a white police officer in North Charleston, S.C., there are fewer Americans who will argue that we do not have a policing problem in America.
Concern about the interactions between cops and members of distressed minority communities ramped up last August with the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. The Justice Department stepped in and produced a scathing report detailing police bias against blacks in Ferguson. Significantly though, the investigation was unable to reach a clear conclusion about Brown, the figure who became the focal point of protests throughout the fall and winter. Yes, he was unarmed, but he may not have been without blame in the altercation with a white police officer that led to his death.
Brown, though, no longer needs to be the prime example of an innocent victim killed by a cop. More compelling and appalling examples keep showing up. There was John Crawford in Beavercreek, Ohio, who was gunned down by police as he strolled along an aisle at Wal-Mart talking on his cellphone and carrying a BB gun that he was about to buy for his children. There was Akai Gurley in Brooklyn, N.Y., who walked out of his apartment and headed down a dark flight of stairs when a cop on patrol got spooked and shot him dead. There was Tamir Rice in Cleveland, a 12-year-old boy playing with a pellet gun in a park who was shot within seconds of police arriving to check out what he was up to. And there was Darrien Hunt in Saratoga Springs, Utah, a fan of Japanese anime characters who was carrying a toy sword when police shot him in the back six times.
There are also examples of black and Latino men who committed only petty infractions but still ended up dead at the hands of police. The most notorious, so far, is Eric Garner. Suspected of selling untaxed cigarettes on the street, Garner was confronted by a group of New York City police officers who put him in a chokehold that led to his death.
There is also one situation after another in which police are summoned to deal with mentally disturbed individuals and end up killing them. In one such incident, three policemen faced off with Keith Vidal, an 18-year-old schizophrenic in Southport, N.C. One of the three officers allegedly said, “We don't have time for this.” Seconds later, that officer shot and killed Vidal.
Sometimes the deadly consequences are accidental. In some instances, the police are working with bad information. Often an officer feels endangered. In certain cases the cop fails to follow proper procedures, either because of incompetence, fear or an adrenaline rush. And sometimes he is that rare but troubling cliche: a bad cop.
We know that policing is a dangerous job and has probably gotten worse as criminals have become more heavily armed. Police officers go to work every day knowing they will be dealing with the worst of society's problems. They might face gang members or meth dealers with automatic weapons. They might cross paths with a mentally deranged homeless person with no connection to reality and a sharp knife hidden in his pocket. They might be called to deal with a minor domestic dispute that could erupt into violence. Most likely, they will come home alive, but they will have to face it all again the next day.
As long as there are flawed human beings and flawed societies, we will need the men and women who do this difficult job. Having sympathy and respect for police, though, does not mean we shouldn’t ask some tough questions of them and of ourselves.
Does the nature of their job leave some officers with stress disorders that play out in unjustified shootings? Are some of the people attracted to the job too eager to play the macho, authoritarian tough guy? Does the dominant policing philosophy of bringing overbearing force to control every situation really make sense in all circumstances? Can we roll back the militarization of our police departments and get them more grounded in the communities they serve? Are we ready to do something about the nation’s appalling mental health crisis or will we continue to dump the problem on the cops? Are we willing to come up with the tax dollars to pay for education, job training and community rehabilitation that can transform troubled communities or do we prefer to maintain our police as virtual occupying armies in poor neighborhoods?
Something clearly needs to change because, right now, it seems as if too many police officers are predisposed to see the worst in every situation. Maybe it’s stress or anger or adrenaline or disillusionment or a bullying nature or simple fear of getting killed themselves, but there is a problem if a cop cannot tell the difference between a menacing gangster and the far more common person they encounter whose life is a little frayed and messy.
Walter Scott seems to have been one of those common people. He was a 50-year-old Coast Guard vet with money problems. When a policeman pulled Scott over because of the faulty brake light on his car, Scott knew the cop would run his record and discover there was a bench warrant out for his arrest. He owed $18,000 in child support and he was going to be going to jail.
Scott jumped out of his car and ran. It was a dumb decision, probably not his first. But then Michael Slager, the police officer who pulled Scott over, made his own choices, the worst being his decision to gun down Scott as he fled.
Walter Scott was just a deadbeat dad driving a car with a bad brake light. Though, like most of us, he was not a perfect human being, nothing he did justified his death. Any person who cannot make that simple distinction should not be entrusted with a badge and a gun.