Paul R. Lehman, Walter Scott’s video underscores police creditability problem with people of color

April 10, 2015 at 12:02 am | Posted in African American, American history, American Racism, blacks, discrimination, Disrespect, equality, Ethnicity in America, European American, fairness, justice, justice system, law enforcement agencies, police force, Prejudice, social justice system, whites | 2 Comments
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Once again a video shows a European American policeman shooting an unarmed African American in the back and killing him. Unfortunately for the policeman, someone captured on video the action that compromised the officer’s account of what happened. What the video does in this case is call into question the officer’s account of fearing for his life. In the majority of cases involving the shooting of an unarmed African American by a European American officer, the words of witnesses and especially those of the people of color are usually discounted. Since slavery, the words of a European American trump those of the African American citizen if they contradict the law enforcer, even in the face of creditable evidence. With the Walter Scott video Americans have cause to pause and question the practice of taking for granted, the police’s word as truth.

Since the Scott video showed the actions of the policeman while contradicting his report, he was arrested and charged with Scott’s death. While this arrest might signal a problem in the system of criminal justice system for African Americans, the fact is that nothing lasting will change for the benefit of the African Americans and people of color until the system is changed. The system was what gave the police officer the ease to write a report that turned the victim into the villain without question. The system is what allowed the acceptance of the officer’s story without investigation, before the video appeared. The point is that because of the system that supports the actions of the officers, usually without question, the greater percentage of shootings by European American officers of unarmed African American men creates little or no concern relative to the officers’ actions.

The way the criminal justice system works now is when an officer stops a citizen, the citizen loses all rights. In many cases violence is introduced by the officers. However, when the citizen asks questions or hesitates to comply, in the officer’s opinion, with the officer’s order, he or she is charged with some offence. From this point on until the citizen is arrested, or worse, shot, all citizen rights have been forfeited. Whenever an officer says his or her life was being threatened, we are led to believe that the life of the citizen is worthless. In essence, citizens have little or no rights when engaged by an officer because their lives have less value than the officer’s.

All too often we hear that the negative actions of the law enforcement agencies are caused by a few bad apples. With all the instances of these bad apples shooting unarmed African Americans it almost appears that the good apples are the exception in law enforcement. If the system is going to change, then the good officers are going to have to take the lead in seeing that their actions comport with the value of all citizens. The excuse of a few bad apples in the force causing all the problems has run its course now to have any creditability. Structural changes are needed in order to begin to address the systemic changes needed.

One of the primary changes that need to be addressed is the practice of the law enforcement agency investigating itself. How can that not be viewed as a conflict of interest? We need to forgo the idea of a gilt-free and truthful band of law officers, never at fault for any negative actions. We have proof in the Scott video that some officers have a totally different perspective of how they do their job. If only the people who serve with them get to investigate their actions, well, the outcome is generally obvious. Until recently, it appeared that only the people affected by the action of the bad apples complained for justice to be served, and their cry usually fell on deaf ears. The system needs changing.

Although the practice of self investigation by law enforcement groups needs to be changed, the culture of that system must be first addressed. From the evidence reported via media and other sources, the law enforcement agents do not value all citizens fairly. Certainly, the unfair treatment of African American citizens and other citizens of color by law enforcers is constantly called into question. The fact that no apparent repercussions for the ill treatment of African American citizens by law enforcers is ever evidenced, seemingly, encourage the officers to continue the practice. When all the law enforcers see and treat all the citizens that they are employed to serve fairly, then positive changes will happen. Unfortunately, that is not the case presently.

Most citizens understand the need for policing and protecting the public, and that this job requires officers to experience life-threatening situations from time to time. However, how can a traffic stop for a minor law infraction, like a broken tail light or an unfastened seat belt lead to death? If officers are afraid for their lives when serving in areas inhabited by people of color, they need to request a change of service location or seek other employment. No one is forced to wear a uniform or carry a badge to protect and serve the citizens. If stereotypical negative concepts color or dominate an officer’s behavior towards people of color, then he or she needs to find employment in a community that suits their needs or try another profession.

The Walter Scott video shows without doubt that a problem exist in police community relations, especially involving people of color. One sure way of knowing that structural changes will not occur is when the administration officials fail to understand that their concept and perspectives help to create the environment that produced this outcome. Adding faces of color to an existing police force will not solve the problem because the problems exist in the way the community and the police view the citizens of color. Unfortunately, too many European Americans cannot see the problem as it relates to human value or recognize that they are part of the problem. So we wait for the next video to appear.

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2 Comments »

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  1. I think the camera-phone will be an increasingly important tool in holding police accountable. Good article.

  2. Excellent article. Some thoughts:

    “Most citizens understand the need for policing and protecting the public, and that this job requires officers to experience life-threatening situations from time to time.” This is true, but only to a point — just like education, we SAY we value those who serve the public as police officers, but we do not invest enough money to do the job well. They are poorly paid and underfunded. Police departments need not only the directive to change the culture but the resources to do so.

    Changing the culture of policing is critical. Right after Ferguson I had a random need to contact the Stillwater OK police department. On their home website page I was shocked to see a recruiting video that shows a HIGHLY militarized and aggressive police force in action. Nowhere were there images of policemen talking to children or escorting funerals or talking down a domestic dispute or any of a number of less violent tasks that they perform for the community. I get it that those images are not as compelling, but they are the stuff of police work! How many police recruits are drawn to this public service anxious for the day when they will be able to draw and shoot their weapons?

    I heard an African American former police officer today commenting that had that video not surfaced the officer would now be on the fast track to promotion and commendation — that is how the police culture works. It’s not a few bad apples but a systemic problem, as you say.

    Are we willing to raise taxes (WHAT?) and demand a change in culture including proper training for an improved police force? We can’t be just pointing fingers at something that is broken going ‘tsk tsk’ while demanding a change. Police officers are public servants, and the public has both voice and vote. How do we go about attracting a new police force that has a different mind-set?

    I don’t even know where to start — except that I am leading a youth group in a study of ethnic bigotry right now, hoping that they can learn even some of the complexities — and I plan to protest the culture of the recruiting video with my police department.

    Thank you for your article.


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