Other Opinions

A police officer fires; another black teen dies

Jordan Edwards wasn’t at the start of spring high school football practice this week. Instead, the parents of the 15-year-old high school freshman – a straight-A student – from the Dallas suburbs are planning his funeral.

On Saturday night, Jordan was a passenger with four other youths in a car driving away from a party when police in Balch Springs, Texas, responded to a call complaining about drunk, underage kids in the neighborhood. An officer named Roy Oliver fired multiple rounds into the vehicle, striking the teen in the head. The actions of the officer, who has since been fired, seem inexplicable. No evidence has emerged that the young people in the car were drinking, let alone armed.

Jordan’s senseless death is all too familiar for anyone who has followed high-profile police-involved shootings in America over the last several years. As with so many cases, police initially released a version of events that was completely untrue, suggesting that the car’s driver had attempted to back up and harm the officer. (His body cam proved otherwise.) Jordan’s 16-year-old brother – who’d just witnessed the most horrific, heart-wrenching thing a human could ever have to witness – was handcuffed and detained by police on the scene. And Jordan’s death then led to the gross verbal dance surrounding so many urban police confrontations, with one neighbor telling local media that the teen was “not a thug” – as if any level of delinquency might excuse firing into a car of teenagers driving away from a scene.

The details were all painfully familiar because the act – a police officer shooting and killing an American – remains all too common. Despite three years of vigorous public debate since Michael Brown’s 2014 death sparked unrest in Ferguson, Mo., despite promises of increased police accountability and increased use of body cams, the rate of police-involved shootings seems to have barely budged. According to the Washington Post, Jordan was the 333rd (and youngest) person shot and killed by U.S. police officers so far in 2017. With the year just one-third over, that means we’re on a nearly identical pace with last year (963) and 2015 (991).

What’s changed? Well for one thing, in the Age of Trump, with the cable networks getting epic ratings (and, presumably, profits) covering the frenetic doings of our 45th president, the killing of an unarmed black 15-year-old didn’t get nearly the kind of a media attention that a similar incident might have garnered a year or two ago.

More importantly, despite police-involved shootings remaining at these levels that most folks (including most big-city police chiefs) find unacceptable, we now have a government in Washington that thinks the only real problem out there is that too many people are heaping too much scorn on our cops. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has a very simple worldview – “We’ve got to get away from the idea of blaming the police,” he said recently – and he’s implementing policies to back that up. The U.S. Justice Department under Sessions is reviewing all its consent decrees with police departments that had been struck to curb civil rights abuses, and he has made it clear that going forward the federal government intends to let local departments do their thing.

That’s terrible news when it comes to preventing the next generation of Jordan Edwardses. The attorney general hangs his ill-advised policies on a straw man argument that would do right-wing talk radio proud. Most advocates for serious police reform aren’t “blaming the police” and know what everyday citizens know – that the vast majority of hard-working officers do a great job in keeping the public safe. But that tackling the problems that lead to this country’s off-the-charts number of police-involving shootings – including systemic issues, from mediocre training to implicit racial bias – are what will rebuild trust and make it safer for cops, as well as the communities they serve, in the long run.

Instead, the last few years have been one step up and one step back. This week, as Jordan’s family and school friends mourned in the Dallas suburbs, there was a rare moment of accountability. Michael Slager, the police officer in North Charleston, S.C., who shot an unarmed black man named Walter Scott who was running away from him after a traffic stop, pleaded guilty to felony federal civil rights charges. Most experts doubt that outcome would have happened had Slager’s illegal actions not been captured so clearly on video.

It was a different – but more typical – story in Baton Rouge, La., where officials announced today there won’t be federal charges in last year’s police-involved killing of Alton Sterling, whose shooting by officers – who believed he was reaching for a gun while pinned down – was also filmed. This despite new information that a white officer pointed a gun to Sterling’s head at the outset of the encounter and said, “I’m going to shoot you, bitch.” It was the first decision of its kind since Sessions became attorney general this winter. Based on what we’ve seen from Sessions so far, this type of outcome won’t be the last.

It’s tragically clear that any progress on police misconduct and accountability these next four years is going to have to come from local communities, and not from Washington.

Police reform is a steep uphill climb that requires constant momentum – and yet one of the main cylinders is badly broken. That’s the one with the attorney general appointed by our new president, Trump. In Texas, Jordan’s parents broke their initial silence to mourn a “loving child with a humble and sharing spirit.” They added: “No one, let alone young children, should witness such horrific, unexplainable, violence.”

And yet there’s something even more unexplainable here: How can America be governed by people who don’t see a problem?

The writer is a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.