by Kassandra Lamb
I’ve thought of a dozen different ways to start this post. They all seemed either inadequate, or too much about me, or too controversial.
So I’m just going to say it:
It’s not okay that bad cops are harassing and killing people just because of the color of their skin, and it’s not okay that anyone is shooting at police officers just because of the uniform they wear.
Furthermore, it is not okay that anyone has to be anxious every time they or their loved ones leave their homes, afraid some police officer will misinterpret their actions as threatening, or some bully cop will try to find an excuse to harass or even kill them.
Ironically, what brought on this rant from me wasn’t the latest shooting of a blatantly innocent man, lying on his back with his empty hands high in the air. I started writing this post before that happened, because of a newsletter I received from a young lawyer named Rachel, from whom I took a webinar a few years back.
Until last week, I didn’t know much about her personally, hadn’t really given any thought to what race she was. I just knew that she gave good legal and business advice.
Last week, her newsletter deviated from its normal format to tell a story of something that happened to her last May. I’m going to summarize the event but I suggest hopping over to her blog and reading the whole story (click here). It will give you a much better idea of what black people all too often encounter in interactions with certain police officers.
Rachel was on her way home from work one day, when she entered the EZ Pass booth at a toll plaza, slowing her car appropriately but not stopping, because that’s not required if you have an EZ Pass.
Then a man in a uniform stepped between the booths and in front of her car. She stopped.
The setting sun was in her eyes so she couldn’t see clearly, but she thought he was motioning her through, so once he had stepped out of the way, she eased her foot off the brake and let her car start rolling forward.
The officer made another, wilder gesture that again she couldn’t make out, and again she thought he was waving her through. At that point he started screaming at her, in language that was “the epitome of disrespectful.”
Since when does driving slowly through an EZ-Pass lane justify lethal force. Oh wait, she was DWB — driving while black! (photo by Otto Yamamoto from NY, NY, CC-BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)
He told her he could’ve shot her for threatening his life (rolling slowly through a toll booth after an officer has stepped out of the way is threatening his life?) And other police have “killed people for similar actions.”
Her attempts to explain about the sun in her eyes and misunderstanding his gestures were met with more screaming and threats – to take away her car, to arrest her. She kept her cool, even though she was royally pissed inside (as I would certainly be), and eventually he let her go on her way.
She had a colleague in the car with her. I can’t help but wonder if she might have been arrested, if there hadn’t been a witness present.
But for me the most revealing part of her story is that she didn’t tell anyone but her husband on the day that this occurred, because:
Encounters like this are so commonplace in black communities that it’s not really news. You just accept this as part of your life. I’ve accepted it as part of my life. (rodgerscollective.com, © 2016)
When I read that, I actually sucked in my breath. It’s part of life?
And I couldn’t help wondering how many times my black friends have experienced something like this, and didn’t bother to share it with me or their other friends, because it’s “just part of life.”
This is not OK!
Now back to last week’s shooting in Miami. Apparently, the police officer involved now claims he was not shooting at the black man lying on the ground. He was shooting at the 26-year-old, non-verbal, autistic man next to him and missed. Because he thought the autistic man had a weapon.
Meanwhile, on the cell phone video recorded by a bystander, you can hear the black man yelling “It’s a toy truck. He’s got a toy truck.”
What doesn’t jive about this cop’s story is the fact that both men were then handcuffed.
And Mr. Kinsey, who had been patted down and had no weapon and who had repeatedly identified himself as a behavioral therapist working for a nearby group home, was left on the sidewalk, handcuffed and bleeding in the hot Miami sun, until paramedics arrived.
If he was the supposed victim of this non-crime, why was he treated that way? I seriously doubt they would have treated a white man that way.
And is it OKAY that the officer was shooting at an unarmed autistic man? And he just happened to be a poor shot?
As the grandmother of an autistic boy who is still fairly nonverbal at age 8, this scares the crap out of me! My grandson would be incapable of following a police officer’s orders because he wouldn’t understand what was going on
But all the noise and negative energy would overwhelm him and he might very well go into a meltdown. And if he’s still nonverbal as an adult…
What would a cop do if instead of dropping the toy truck, he started screaming at the top of his lungs because he was overwhelmed and scared? In today’s culture, that cop might very well shoot my grandson because he wasn’t following orders and he seemed to be a threat.
I understand that cops need to be cautious, that they are putting their lives on the line, and often have to make snap decisions (and I think they should be paid much, much more than they are). But under these circumstances, while I can certainly understand drawing their weapon and approaching with care, I can’t understand why they didn’t try to get close enough to see what the guy was actually holding before they started shooting!
I’m convinced that nothing is going to turn the tide with this shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later culture until WHITE PEOPLE start doing something about it.
We say “Oh my! That’s terrible.” And then forget about it until the next time.
We need to do more than that! First, we need to put ourselves in the shoes of our black friends and neighbors and imagine what it’s like to be a little nervous every time you leave the house, to feel your throat close with fear if a cop pulls you over while driving.
And to fear for your loved ones’ lives every time they are out in the world (and now those of us with autistic loved ones will be feeling that fear too!)
Secondly, we need to pressure our local governments and police departments to make changes, before the next person dies! Here are some things we can actually DO that will make a difference:
1. Encourage and support black people who have experiences like Rachel’s to report them to that officer’s superiors.
And by this I don’t mean, saying “Hey, you should report that.”
I suspect most blacks are wary of reporting such events. They don’t really want to draw attention to themselves, and maybe become more of a target. Not an unrealistic fear considering the tendency for some police departments to close racks and protect their own.
So offer to go with your friend, in person, and be their witness (and respect their wishes if they choose not to report it). Once there, use your privilege (sad but true, you may get further than your black friend might) to insist on talking to the highest ranking person available at the police department. Follow up with a letter to that person summarizing the meeting and send a copy of that letter to the mayor of your city, the county executive of your county, and/or the governor of your state.
2. Write to or go visit your local police department’s chief of police or sheriff and ask what measures are in place to identify and deal with overly-aggressive officers or deputies.
It’s really not that hard to identify them BEFORE they’ve shot someone. I have heard from good cops that the easiest way to do this is to look at how often, when this officer arrests people, the other charges are accompanied by a resisting arrest charge.
Frequent resisting arrest charges can mean this officer tends to use verbally aggressive tactics and/or excessive physical force.
3. Follow up with these law enforcement authorities suggesting implementation of mandatory anger management counseling and additional training in deescalation tactics for officers who are accused of using excessive force or who have filed a higher than average number of resisting arrest charges.
And if these officers do not change their ways, insist that they be removed from the police force. Better that we have too few cops on the streets, than we have even a few cops who are hurting, harassing and killing innocent people – and giving all cops a bad name, which paints a target on the backs of their uniforms!!
4. If you get stonewalled, and most definitely if you are threatened because of your efforts to bring about these changes, go to the local press and tell them your story.
Going public makes it very hard for the bad cops and those who might be trying to cover up for them to retaliate. (Note: I am not anti-cop; just anti bad cops. To paraphrase a cliché from the 1960s, some of my closest friends are police or former officers.)
If you’re a white person and wondering at this point, why you need to do these things, here’s why. Sadly, those authorities are more likely to take you seriously and those who might retaliate against a black complainant will think twice before doing so when their white friends are standing by them.
And yes, folks, it is that serious! People are getting shot out there. Everyday people like you and me, who are driving home from work or escorting their autistic charge back to his group home. And good cops are getting killed because of the actions of the bad ones.
5. Pressure your local and state governments to provide better funding for police departments so they can implement these programs and can also attract more high-quality officers.
6. Keep the pressure on until the bad cops have been weeded out and the good cops can once again feel like they are part of the community they serve, not its enemy.
7. And finally, stop expecting black people to not get angry and talk back when they are being harassed by a cop. It may not be the smartest thing for them to do, but it is certainly a natural reaction. Wouldn’t you be pissed if you were minding your own business, and suddenly a police officer is yelling in your ear and threatening to shoot you?
Please, take action to make these changes happen! Enough people have died senselessly. Enough families have been shattered.
Enough is enough!
(I do suggest you click on Rachel’s blog and read her entire story of the event. It will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.)
Do I Look Like a Threat?
Can you think of anything else that we – black and white people, all people – can do in our communities to change them to the safe places they should be?
(Note: Please keep the conversation civil and constructive. Any blatantly bigoted or obnoxious rants will be deleted as will any vitriol against all police officers.)
Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological suspense series, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.
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