I am a black man. I am not afraid of the police.
I don’t think all cops are out to get me.
I believe most cops — black, white, Hispanic — try to live up to the honor that revered badge affords them.
I am a black father who has taught his black son to adopt the same attitude.
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I haven’t had “the talk” many black parents have had with their sons, and don’t plan to.
That’s my vow; been so for years now.
I’ve maintained fidelity to that vow despite my knowledge of the horrific violence, stretching back centuries, purposefully visited upon black bodies in my native South by cops and the criminal justice system.
I’ve done that despite research showing that in modern times a young black man is 21 times more likely to be shot by a cop than a young white man, and that black men are treated more harshly than others at every level of the criminal justice system — even when they commit the same crime and have the same background as white men.
I’ve done that despite officers who have shot a 12-year-old boy because he had a toy gun in a park or a 22-year-old who picked up an air rifle in a Walmart — in an open carry state for real guns — or when cops didn’t face charges after being caught on video choking a man to death and watching him die on a sidewalk.
I’ve done that despite the endless parade of people who quickly change the conversation after every cop shooting to unleash yet another diatribe about supposedly dangerous young black men, intimating that the dead must have deserved it, besmirching an entire group for the actions of a few while demanding that cops never be judged by their worst elements or biggest mistakes.
The shooting of a 50-year-old man by a North Charleston police officer makes maintaining my vow more difficult, though.
It’s not because the officer was caught on video shooting the man multiple times in the back as he ran away.
It’s not because another unarmed man is dead for no good reason, leaving behind now fatherless children.
It’s not because the cop apparently lied, initially claiming he shot Walter L. Scott because he feared for his life, or that without the video we’d likely never have known the truth.
Maintaining my vow is becoming more difficult because the North Charleston shooting reminds me that not only do we not know how often such things occur, but that we seem comfortable with that level of ignorance.
We don’t know how often police officers shoot people, for justifiable or unjustifiable reasons, in clear or murky circumstances.
We do know that when a police officer in South Carolina shoots, he is highly unlikely to face any charges. The State newspaper did an analysis of known police shootings in South Carolina over the past five years. They found at least 209 incidents.
SLED officials acknowledge that the 209 number could be a gross under-count because police departments are not required to report each shooting to SLED, and SLED is not required to investigate every such event.
The same occurs on the national level. Police departments throughout the country aren’t required to tell the FBI about officer-involved shootings. An analysis by the Wall Street Journal showed that hundreds of police shootings did not show up in official FBI statistics.
Some estimates suggest an average of 3 people are killed by police every day.
How is that OK?
Having a full accountable of police-involved shootings would be good for police officers, and the community at large. It would allow us to replace rampant speculation with solid data.
And it would make it easier for me to hold onto my vow.
I’m still going tell my son he shouldn’t be afraid of cops, that most are good, that the odds of a police officer harming him are long.
I’m going to tell him that he lives in the Myrtle Beach area, where there have been few such shootings, where officers recently showed they know how to de-escalate potentially deadly situations without the use of deadly force.
What if he asks why I believe he is safe from cops even though Eric Garner was killed for allegedly selling loose cigarettes, Tamir Rice for holding a toy gun, John Crawford for picking up an air rifle in a Walmart, Akai Gurley for standing unarmed in a stairwell, Levar Jones for complying with an officer’s commands, and tangentially, Trayvon Martin killed while walking home from a convenience store with a fruity drink in his hand?
I no longer know how to answer that question.
Knowing how often police shoot would help.