By Dr. Dhanpaul Narine
What if there were no videos? How would we be able to witness the graphic scenes of brutality committed against Blacks? Americans were horrified to see the police beat the life out Tyre Nichols in Memphis. In another gruesome scene in 2020, a police officer, Derek Chauvin, squeezed the last breath out of George Floyd. Police brutality against Blacks is nothing new, but it is the video that must be thanked for providing the incontrovertible evidence.
Many analysts argue that if there were no videos there would have been the usual cover-up and exoneration of police officers after ‘extensive investigations.’ As America was trying to cope with the deaths of Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, it was confronted with the tragedy of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. The video showed an able-bodied man arrested by the police but what is not seen, or known, is the manner in which Gray died. Jerry Rodriguez is Baltimore’s Deputy Police Commissioner. He said at a news conference, ‘when Mr. Gray was put in that van, he could talk, he was upset, and when he was taken out of that van, he could not talk and he could not breathe.’
These incidents make it clear that Blacks and Whites live in different worlds. This is evident in two areas of life: the role of the police and the manner in which the justice system operates. The statistics show that only one in ten Blacks feel that they receive equal treatment in the justice system. When asked about how the police would treat Blacks and Whites, two out of ten Blacks expressed confidence that they would receive equal treatment. These findings are as a result of a survey conducted by the ‘Washington Post’ and ABC News. While there is distrust among Blacks, it is interesting to find out that Whites have a different perspective toward the police and the justice system.
In the same survey, around fifty percent of Whites reported that the races are treated equally in America. When this is broken down into party affiliations other findings become noticeable. For example, two in three White Republicans said that minorities and Whites are treated equally but only three in ten Democrats feel the same way. Similarly, ‘while more than 8 in 10 Republicans say they are confident that police treat Blacks and Whites equally, half as many white Democrats share that opinion.’
It is hardly surprising then that with such differing views Blacks feel that they are getting a raw deal. They point to the prison population and argue that it is the harsh arrest policies that are responsible for the increase in the numbers. Blacks comprise 12 percent of the population in the United States but represent 40 percent of the nation’s prison population. One explanation for the widening, and in some cases staggering disparity, is the sheer volume of arrests that are taking place.
According to USA Today, ‘Blacks are more likely to be arrested in almost every city for almost every type of crime. Nationwide, Black people are arrested at higher rates for crimes as serious as murder and assault, and as minor as loitering.’
These statistics may lead to a sense of bewilderment in the Black community, and among those concerned with questions of equity and fair play. But there is no question that had it not been for recording devices the public would not have known about the excesses of the police. Who would have known about the police beating of Rodney King in 1991 if someone had not held a camera and recorded the episode?
The Rodney King incident was so outrageous that even President George Bush called for an enquiry. Over the years, police treatment of Blacks, and other minorities, has raised great concern in the community. In 2014, a California Patrol Officer ‘took down’ a Black woman and beat her senseless. In 2012, a defenseless Kelly Thomas was beaten by two police officers in Southern California. He repeatedly told the officers that he couldn’t breathe but they ignored him. Kelly fell into a coma and died five days after the beatings. The officers were exonerated.
In 2009, an unarmed man, Oscar Grant, was shot dead by a transit police Johannes Mehserle in Oakland, California. The policeman was charged with involuntary manslaughter and served two years in prison. His defense argued that Mehserle shot Grant by mistake. In recent times, more videotapes have surfaced to show the level of police brutality and they paint an ugly picture of the incidents.
In January 2014, Christopher Lollie was sitting in a public area in St. Paul’s Minnesota waiting to pick up his kids. He was asked to leave the area by private security guards. Lollie pointed out that it was a public area and he had a right to sit there. What began as a normal conversation escalated into a major incident. The police arrived and tased Lollie. The video went viral some months later and led to a public enquiry into the arrest of Lollie. The charges were later dropped and Lollie sued for racial profiling.
Sunil Dutta is a police officer in Los Angeles with a doctorate degree. He wrote in August 2014 that, ‘in the overwhelming majority of cases it is not the cops, but the people they stop, who can prevent detentions from turning into tragedies.’ Dutta said that in working the streets he has withstood curses, tantrums and menacing behavior, and in most cases, he was able to resolve them without the use of force. How did he do this? According to Dutta, he used creative solutions and wielded every trick in his arsenal to keep the peace.
But while he has shown restraint Dutta has a chilling warning to the public. He said, that ‘if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I am a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge, and don’t even think of walking aggressively towards me.’
What then is one to do in the face of unprovoked police brutality? Dutta advises that the person should save his or her anger for later and to channel it appropriately. He suggests that one can, ‘feel free to sue the police. Just don’t challenge a cop during a stop.’ But Dutta needs a refresher course. Walter Scott and Freddy Gray were actually running away from the police when they met with their demise and Eric Garner could not be considered aggressive.
Some police officers make the point that one cannot fully understand the job of the police. The average cop is trained to take control of a situation and usually has a lot of things to think about. A traffic stop can be a life-or-death situation, as was seen in the case of Tyre Nichols. While this is a valid point, the police should be sensitive to the needs of the community as well. The average person has a lot to think about too and it is here that sensitivity training for both groups can be really helpful.
In recent times, Americans have been exposed to the deaths of John Crawford, Mike Brown, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Ramarley Graham, Kendrec McDade, Eric Garner, George Floyd and Tyre Nichols. In a good many cases, the videos showed excessive force. It showed Eric Garner saying no less than eleven times that he could not breathe as he was placed in a chokehold. The police officer that shot Walter Scott was charged with murder. Derek Chauvin faced the full brunt of the law for the George Floyd murder, as would the five officers involved in the Trye Nichols death. The officers were Blacks, as was Nichols, but what does it matter?
In the last few years, New York City has paid out $428 million to settle 12,000 civil rights cases. This is an astronomical sum and it shows the need for a change in police tactics. New York City announced guidelines during the de Blasio administration. It asked police officers not to imitate the speech of others, to avoid stereotyping, to avoid judging people if they are not breaking the law, to avoid racial profiling, to stay away from making racial, or ethnic jokes, and to be reminded that most people are law-abiding.
The current Mayor, Eric Adams, was a cop that understands police culture and the need to balance enforcement with diversity. It he could walk this tight rope New York City will be the better for it. But one thing is certain: those smart cameras will be out in a flash, and hopefully, everyone will be on their best behavior.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN.