Saturday, July 09, 2016

blaming the victims of police violence

Have you heard about Steven Hildreth Jr.?

Hildreth, a resident of Tuscon, Ariz., was featured in an October 2015 news story in which he describes an encounter with the police that did not end with him being shot, tased, arrested or otherwise turned into the latest statistic of police violence aimed at black Americans. In fact, the story notes, after he was pulled over for a broken headlight, he told the police that he had a license for a concealed firearm, which he was carrying on his hip.

The encounter doesn't go badly; in fact, the police let him off with a reminder to fix the broken headlight and to get his up-to-date registration card, since the registration is valid but the card is old. “Because you were cool with us and didn’t give us grief, I’m just going to leave it at a verbal warning," the officer says.

Here's how Hildreth ends his comments, which he originally posted on Facebook:

I’m a black man wearing a hoodie and strapped. According to certain social movements, I shouldn’t be alive right now because the police are allegedly out to kill minorities.

Maybe…just maybe…that notion is bunk.

Maybe if you treat police officers with respect, they will do the same to you.

It's no surprise that every time there is another police shooting of a black man, particularly when it ends in the black man's death, Hildreth's comments go viral. Coming from me or Sean Hannity, these comments easily could be dismissed as whitesplaining, but here they are, from a black man. To some, this constitutes compelling evidence that Black Lives Matter is about disrespecting our police, who are doing a dangerous job and whose lives are imperiled whenever we express concerns about the potential for racism.

I'm glad that Hildreth had a pleasant encounter with the police who pulled him over, as I'm sure everyone else is. That doesn't make his experience normative, though. I twice have been pulled over by police who were so friendly and professional that I didn't mind getting a ticket from them, and left the encouner in as good a mood as when it started. That doesn't mean I expect police to be that friendly when they pull me over and when they aren't that it's because of something I said differently.

I've seen Hildreth's story in my Facebook feed many times, and here's the truth: I don't like it. It blames the victims of police violence for that violence, and it's also incredibly condescending. (Also, every Facebook friend who has shared it has been white, so maybe there is something to that charge of whitesplaining after all.)

Hildreth is correct that we should treat police officers with respect, but the implication of his comments is that if something goes wrong, then the fault lies with the civilian. In fact, that's pretty much exactly he point spells out. The problem is that too many black Americans have found this to be exactly not the case. Most recently Philando Castile, who reportedly was shot while doing exactly what the officer on hand said, who by all reports was a respectful person, and who even informed the cop that he was had a license for concealed carry.

In other words, he acted just like Hildreth did, but he was shot and killed anyway.

Admonitions to respect police are rather like calls to have faith that God will answer prayers. Having faith is a good thing, but if God does not answer your prayers, it doesn't you failed to have enough faith. It's important to respect police, but unfortuantely for far too many black Americans, that hasn't been enough to save their lives either.

Let's stop blaming victims of police violence, and let's stop pretending that black people don't know that they should respect police.

We need instead to address the problem from the side of the police. A number of the cops who have been involved in these incidents were let go from previous departments because of incidents that left their superiors concerned about their fitness to be cops. And others have shown overt signs of racist attitudes and behaviors, including racially offensive comments. Departments need to start vetting these people out, no matter how much experience they have on the force.

I knew a cop once on my journalism beat who felt free to talk trash about Arabs, Jews, black people and, well, just about anyone. He was the second highest-ranking officer on the force, and then two years later he was chief. I don't care how good a cop he may have been otherwise, this man didn't belong on the force. Even if he never went on patrol any more, his attitudes still infected the department.

Get rid of cops like him, make an effort to hire so that the police departments resemble their communities demographically, and give training like they were having success with in Dallas, and then we might start to see progress.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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