No improper use of force by police is acceptable. Racist cops are completely unacceptable. But sometimes those two factors don't intersect. A good cop can err while using force against a person of another colour without being a racist. And it is possible that a racially biased white officer can be totally justified to use force against a black suspect, including deadly force IF the bias was not a factor.
Are there racist police officers out there? Undoubtedly there are, but I believe that as loathsome as that may be, they are a very small minority. Once known, police chiefs will attempt to rid their services of those officers as quickly as possible – through due process. In the meantime, the negative actions of that small minority of officers fractures public trust for the remaining honest cops who work hard in a totally unbiased way to keep communities safe – 24/7. As a result, they are often under an intense and dangerous microscope that is unfairly searching for bias and fault in all they do.
For the past few years, a number of high-profile deaths of young, black males have occurred at the hands of police. The majority have happened in the U.S., but there have been a few such cases in Canada. Some of these deaths were questionable, in that it has been hard for some – including me, to understand the officer’s rationale for the use of deadly force. But none of us were there. The emotion and frustration among many black community members has been understandably palpable as a result. The movement called Black Lives Matter (BLM) has tried to bring their concerns to the fore, sometimes peacefully, other times not, but always with conviction and passion.
BLM activity grew to a fever-pitch across the land this past year, with protests occurring in numerous U.S. cities and Toronto. Violence erupted in many cases, and firearms were discharged by citizens in at least once instance. Unfortunately as a result, there is metaphorically – and at times literally, a target on police, given the assumption by some that any use of force by white officers on black citizens is proof of racism. This is unhealthy; it fans flames of mistrust; and has led to attacks against innocent police officers.
I completely appreciate the concerns that black men are seemingly statistically over-represented in traffic stops and in violent interactions with police than white men. However, the sad reality is that in most major American cities and even in Toronto, the bulk of crime occurs in black communities. In fact it is most often crime committed by black men against black victims. Police then respond to more calls and interact with more suspects there than they do in predominantly white communities. For the most part, that is why the police/black community interaction stats are what they are. The same principle applies to the lopsided ratio of black versus white victims of police deadly force.
Some people don’t want to hear such statements because they view them as being racist, but it is an honest and unbiased fact. There are a host of socio-economic factors that have led to this awful situation, and many of them likely fueled by racism that occurred years ago, as well as unfair and/or racialized public policies since, but the police themselves cannot fix those underlying factors.
The continued publication of misleading stats without accompanying analysis, leads to a further denigration of trust in the police. Of course, racism can work in a variety of ways and some commentators are inherently racist themselves and constantly throw gas on anti-police fires.
The most recent U.S. police shootings of two black men who were armed, but reportedly not holding their handguns at the time of their deaths, has intensified the BLM firestorm in the U.S. and Canada. The belief of some is that these are yet further examples of racist acts by police. Everyone must be careful to not jump to emotional assumptions based on the limited pieces of video and initial witness accounts of these shootings – but should let the investigations run their course.
Investigators will examine all videos; the initial reports and dispatch details to determine what officers thought or knew going in to these occurrences; as well as the statements of all witnesses and forensic examination results, before coming to an informed conclusion. They must distinguish error from malice and truly identify acts of racism if and when they exist. The test will be: “Did the officers have authority to make an arrest? Were they lawfully justified to use deadly force? If not, did they do it with intent, i.e. on purpose? Or did they overreact or misinterpret something they saw or heard that caused them to fear a threat to their safety or the safety of others?” Then from a racism perspective, “Did they do what they did because the person they killed was a man of colour?”
In the recent tragedies in St. Paul and Baton Rouge, if the evidence shows intent and a lack of authority to use deadly force, charges will be laid appropriately. But being able to conclude and prove the officers only took the lethal action they did because the now dead men were black, is much more challenging.
On the other hand, this past Thursday, a lone gunman used a peaceful BLM protest as the venue for the mass murder of white police officers who were walking with the crowds in the streets of Dallas. His actions were not part of a protest, but were nothing less than cold-blooded murder. It was a sick and hateful act of racism that leaves little room for misinterpretation or justification. A number of attacks on police have occurred across other states since and BLM protests have intensified. Let’s hope sanity soon prevails and that this violence hasn’t become the new norm for law enforcement. Nothing good can come out of that for the police or for the public they serve.
Chris Lewis served as Commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police from 2010 until he retired in 2014. He can be seen regularly on CTV and CP24 giving his opinion as a public safety analyst.