Dear Police: Join #BlackLivesMatter
(Published Jul 14, 2016, updated Sept 14, 2018)
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” All police are less safe, all police are more likely to be threatened, assaulted, and shot, when we allow abusive police behavior to continue unchecked.
On July 6, 2016, on a Wednesday, Philando Castile, his girlfriend, Diamond Lavish Reynolds, and her four-year-old daughter, were driving home from the grocery store in St. Paul, Minnesota, when they were pulled over by a police officer. According to Lavish (in a video immediately after the shooting and in a later statement), Officer Jeronimo Yanez came to the window and asked the usual questions ― “Do you know why I stopped you? You have a taillight out.” Next, he told Philando and Lavish to put their hands up. They complied. Then, he asked for Phil’s ID.
As Philando reached for his ID in his back right pocket, he told the officer that he was carrying a gun, and that he had a legal concealed-carry permit. The officer yelled at Castile to freeze and almost in the same moment, shot him four times in the left side, through the open window of his car. Lavish said he started shooting within seconds, giving Castile no time to respond to his order to stop. The officer shot him at point-blank range, while he was still strapped into his seatbelt, reaching for his ID, following all recommended concealed carry guidelines by informing the officer that he was armed.
The next evening, Thursday, July 7, during a peaceful protest in Dallas, Texas, 5 police officers were killed and 7 wounded by a lone sniper, a 25-year-old black man named Micah Johnson, an ex-Army reservist who said he wanted to kill white police officers. Before the shooting started, Dallas Police, who have greatly improved their relationship with the black community in Dallas over the last 6 years under the leadership of police chief David Brown, were taking photos and chatting with protestors, while blocking off streets to keep the crowd safe.
The Dallas PD lost officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens, all who left behind devastated families, friends and colleagues.
It was a week shrouded in injustice and tragedy. Just hours before Philando’s death, yet another black man, Alton Sterling, was senselessly murdered by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Police tackled him to the ground and were sitting on his chest when they shot him at point-blank range. His hands were flat against the pavement, fingers spread. Witnesses say the father of four never reached for a gun, which police allegedly removed from his pocket and placed beside his body after he was dead. His slaying, captured on video, was the subject of a federal investigation. Ultimately, no charges were filed against the two officers involved.
During a statement given by Alton’s family shortly after his death, his 15-year-old son sobbed uncontrollably.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” wrote Dr. King, in April 1963, in his Letter from a Birmingham jail.
As ever, his words ring true. We cannot abide the casual murder of black citizens at the hands of police, any more than we can abide the massacre of police officers by deranged ideologues. Yet these crimes share a common thread.
The Dallas police officers were murdered in cold blood because the gunman was angry about Castile and Sterling’s deaths. What he may not have known is how hard the Dallas Police Department had worked to shift their paradigm of policing, to focus on better training in the use of deadly force, to emphasize de-escalation, and to commit to transparency and community partnership. This police department had invested time, money, and resources in improving their relationship with the black community in Dallas, and it had paid off. Excessive force complaints against the department had dropped dramatically, as had officer-involved shootings.
The officers killed by Micah Johnson were part of a department which, by all accounts, was trying to do the right thing.
Philando Castile’s death sent shock waves of grief through his community. Unbeknownst to the officer who shot him, he was a cafeteria supervisor at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School in Saint Paul, a “warm and gentle presence,” beloved by hundreds of children, faculty, staff and community members alike.
According to an article in TIME, he memorized the names of the 500 children he served every day — along with their food allergies, his former coworker said.
“He remembered their names. He remembered who couldn’t have milk. He knew what they could have to eat and what they couldn’t,” Joan Edman, a recently retired paraprofessional at the school, told TIME. “This was a real guy. He made a real contribution. Yes, black lives matter. But this man mattered.”
He had no prior police record, other than minor traffic infractions (although the sheer number of times he was stopped by police is pungently indicative of racial profiling). The statement released by Saint Paul Public Schools, where Castile worked for the last 14 years, contained a remembrance by a co-worker who said, “Kids loved him. He was smart, over-qualified. He was quiet, respectful, and kind.”
Castile would have turned 33 on July 16.
The promising young black man killed by Officer Yanez was, by all accounts, an unequivocal blessing to his community.
After the deaths of the officers in Dallas, Police chief David Brown said:
“Police officers are guardians of this great democracy: the freedom to protest, the freedom of speech, freedom of expression, all freedoms we fight for with our lives,” he said. “It’s what makes us who we are as Americans.”
“…and so we won’t militarize our policing standards… We are not going to let a coward who would ambush police officers change our democracy. We are not going to do it. Our city, our country, is better than that.”
Every time officers consciously choose to de-escalate a situation, they choose peace over violence. Every time officers ask questions first instead of later, they choose understanding over prejudice. Every time officers resist the urge to reach for their weapons, they choose life over fear.
Dear Police: Join #BlackLivesMatter. Educate yourselves. Because the history of your profession is steeped in state-sponsored oppression and racism, it is you who must take the first step, no matter how unfair that may feel to you.
We must find a way to create a society in which all communities feel protected and understood by police, and in which police feel trusted and respected. The best people to help create the changes in police departments that are so desperately needed, are police officers.
The Department of Justice investigation of the Ferguson Police department revealed endemic racism and abuses of power, and we have every reason to believe this is not an isolated example of police culture gone awry.
The use of police forces as revenue-generators for municipalities is well-documented, and this practice puts officers in the compromising position of being motivated to conduct traffic stops or harass citizens for extremely minor infractions. It also perpetuates a cycle of poverty, the strings to which are held by the criminal justice system, as fines and arrests for non-payment stack up to the point of crushing lives under their weight.
When so many senseless killings of black and brown people are associated with these minor infractions (Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Samuel Dubose, and many, many more), it’s past time to seriously question the foundational assumptions of using government employees with guns to shake down citizens minding their own business.
When Chief Brown of the Dallas PD announced that traffic citations would no longer be used to raise revenue, his officers issued HALF as many tickets. Toxic police culture seems to be the norm, unless real effort is made to improve, as the rare, progressive initiatives of the Dallas Police Department seem to suggest.
In many communities, there exist officers who want a police culture that serves and protects their communities with unequivocal respect and understanding. There are sheriffs and police chiefs running for office, who may be campaigning on platforms of addressing these issues, of making changes similar to those made by the Dallas PD, or the Richmond, CA police department, whose officers actually joined #BlackLivesMatter protests in 2014.
Our support of those police officers that are working to improve police culture not only hastens the safety of black and brown communities, but also contributes to the safety of the officers themselves. The gunman in Dallas may not have known he was shooting at some of the most community-oriented cops in the country. We need to make sure he, and others like him, know that the color of an officer’s skin is no indication of that officer’s commitment to civic justice and community partnership.
Where abusive police culture seems rooted, we must dig it out. We must care enough and have the political will to seek out the data, ask the questions, and press for answers. Police departments that defend themselves against legitimate inquiry and seek to protect officers who behave badly, are a significant part of the problem. We should not allow them to continue to hide behind a narrative of heroism and sacrifice, when we know that real heroes are not afraid of genuine dialogue and transparency.
Police organizations often seem to feel attacked when there is public outcry over unjust police killings, and we should question why. Why would they prefer to throw their lot in with abusive officers, rather than support the communities they are supposed to protect? Why can’t our communities be on the “same team” as the officers who patrol our streets? The creators of #BlackLivesMatter have condemned violence against police at every occasion, and yet police organizations are deafeningly silent with regard to disproportionate and excessive violence against black people. This must change.
It has become nearly impossible to call for police reform without being labeled as anti-police, which is the most perverse form of self-defeatism imaginable. All police are less safe, all police are more likely to be threatened, assaulted, and shot, when we allow abusive police behavior to continue unchecked. If it’s “only a few bad apples,” wouldn’t you want to get those apples out of the barrel as quickly as possible, before the rot spreads?
If you care at all about the wellbeing of police, your first consideration should be to remove from duty every single abusive or racist officer, who, with every incident of poor judgment and callousness, further endangers the lives of every decent officer in the country — to say nothing of the lives of civilians.
“What we have said over and over again is that it is time in this country for policing to be accountable, transparent and responsible. That’s not rhetoric. That is what communities in the United States want to see from the people who protect and serve them.” — Alicia Garza, Black Lives Matter co-founder
It should be what police want, too.
Author’s Note: Dallas Police Chief David Brown, whose reforms greatly improved Dallas PD’s credibility with the community, retired in October 2016. His successors have apparently not maintained his commitment to transparency and integrity, as the recent suspicious death of Botham Jean illuminates. (Sept. 14, 2018)
“St. Anthony officers who made traffic stop are longtime friends, former classmates” Minnesota Star Tribune
“‘The Tail Light Was Not Out’ Diamond Reynolds Makes Startling Statement on Murderous Traffic Stop” The Free Thought Project
“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — April 16, 1963
“How the Dallas Police Department Reformed Itself” The Atlantic
“Stopped 52 times by police: Was it racial profiling?” The Washington Post
“Justice Department Announces Findings of Two Civil Rights Investigations in Ferguson, Missouri” United States Department of Justice
“The 12 key highlights from the DOJ’s scathing Ferguson report” The Washington Post
“Policing and Profit” Harvard Law Review
“Dallas officers wrote 37,000 fewer traffic tickets last year” The Dallas Morning News
“FBI’s warning of White Supremacists infiltrating Law Enforcement nearly forgotten” CHCA (Cops Holding Cops Accountable)
“#BlackLivesMatter Condemns NYPD Cop Killings: ‘Not Our Vision Of Justice’”The Huffington Post