I EXPERIENCED some of the same emotions many others did in response to the non-indictments in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York. The deaths of unarmed black men and boys at the hands of white police officers conjure up such ugly old memories of a time long gone — when white officers routinely abused black citizens, suspects or not — that those days hardly seem so long gone.
But as I have watched the marches and protests and heard a range of conversations from virtually all angles on this matter, I have come to a more nuanced conclusion than you’ll find in too many conversations. Bottom line: While there’s no doubt that there are systemic and heart changes that need to be made to ensure that we have a fair and equitable system of justice, this complex matter is a challenge to us all to take a serious look at ourselves even as we put others under the microscope.
Here are some of the challenging thoughts that have crossed my mind.
•Give them their day in court.
I saw the video footage of Ferguson’s Michael Brown supposedly robbing a store and have read how he walked down the middle of the street and allegedly tangled with the police officer who eventually shot the unarmed teen multiple times, killing him. I’ve read how Eric Garner was suspected of selling single cigarettes, which is against the law in New York, and have seen the video of an officer putting him in a chokehold, killing him.
Neither of these men had been found guilty of anything. And none of what they were accused of doing would have merited anything near a death sentence had they made it to court to face a judge and jury. The problem is that too many black men aren’t being arrested and taken to court.
Our justice system spins on the belief that everyone, even the worst sort, deserves his day in court. Charles Manson committed horribly gruesome crimes, but he got his day in court. Convicted in 1971, he’s still living, locked up on the public’s dime. Saddam Hussein, captured by U.S. forces, got his day in court. I know. I know. Osama bin Laden didn’t make it to court. But no one would put Michael Brown and Eric Garner in that category or compare them to either of the other two. Yet Michael Brown and Eric Garner are dead, never having been read their rights, arrested, jailed or tried. That’s unacceptable and, yes, un-American.
•Yes, black lives do matter.
The marchers and protesters around the country making that declaration are right. Their intent is to bring attention to the deaths of black men at the hands of white police and to get law enforcement and government officials to take steps to develop more diverse, well-rounded police forces that work with and respect all people. And when there is a miscarriage of justice, take appropriate steps to make it right, even if that means putting an officer on trial.
But while police and government officials should be compelled to act, black communities have a lot of work to do as well to prove that they too believe that black lives matter.
Let’s be real. Black-on-black crime is off the charts, and far too many black people are killing one another, particularly young black men. I’d say it’s worth a speech or a march or a protest or two in black neighborhoods — think Chicago, for example — to send African-Americans that message: Black lives matter.
•Get off the fringes.
Some black people respond in instances like these as if all white people support non-indictment while some white people act as if all black people are criminal suspects. Truth is that many of us are closer to the middle and open-minded enough to want all the evidence before backing into distant corners and pointing fingers.
•Let’s respect authority
. We must teach all of our children — our boys in particular — the importance of respecting authority, as well as how to respond when approached. This isn’t an attempt to make them kowtow or feel inferior or subservient, but to help them understand that we all answer to someone and that we all should be held accountable. As a society, we have empowered certain people to perform certain functions to keep us safe or bring order or governance, and police officers are among them.
But we can’t expect our boys to understand authority in the heat of the moment on the street when they don’t understand authority at home or at school or at church.
It’s particularly important for black parents to teach their kids about responding respectfully when dealing with police officers. Whereas a white father might teach his son something along the same lines, it’s more to keep his son from being jailed. Black fathers who teach their sons about how to respond to police must go an extra two miles — all aimed at keeping their children from ending up in a grave. Some black parents will admonish their sons to endure what might be unwarranted behavior from a police officer with the sole purpose of living to fight another day rather than end up dead. Parents can always bail a child out who is jailed on a bogus charge and complain about the officer at a later time.
•Consider the way we police.
It’s becoming more and more clear to me that we have gone too far with racial profiling. Should law enforcement curtail or even discontinue the practice? Far too often, police departments don’t reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. Shouldn’t they work harder to do so, not simply to change the way they look but change the way they think and act and police?
I appreciate Columbia announcing proactive steps to address growing concerns about how police respond to citizens — particularly black men and boys. Not only are officials out to improve policing and prevent a disaster, but they also announced a pay raise for officers that is sure to improve recruitment and retention and let officers know they’re valued.
Together, the changes will reassure the public while reaffirming support for law officers. Requiring more accountability, transparency and training doesn’t just protect the public; it protects officers as well. And the increase in pay, well, its effect goes without saying.
The city announced improvements that include outfitting every officer with a body camera, increased officer training and creating a commission to investigate discrimination or abuse in any city agency, among other things.
Speaking of training officers, while citizens must yield to an officer’s authority, officers must be trained to make good, responsible decisions and to deal with people from different races and backgrounds. The authority vested in them isn’t theirs; it’s the people’s authority and power, and they should understand that. We don’t need standoffs or showdowns; we need law and order. Most of our officers understand that, but some don’t.
•Let’s remember that we need police officers.
It’s unfair to indict all officers for the wrongs of a few. We are always going to need police officers, most of whom are good, committed public servants. We must be careful not to so malign law enforcement and paint all officers — no matter their race — with a broad brush.
Let’s not smear an entire institution out of anger and frustration. We need white officers and black officers and Hispanic officers from varying backgrounds to protect us. Yes, let’s fix problems in our legal, judicial and penal systems that tilt the scales of justice.
But all those good officers out there, let’s not sully them unfairly. Let’s embrace them and let them know we support them.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.