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Honors Research: What We Talk About When We Talk About Police Shootings

Editors Note: Joseph Spelde is a senior political science major studying abroad in Copenhagen. He is working on an honors project about police violence and the following is based on his research. Statements made may not reflect the views of The Point or its staff.

The events that occurred last Tuesday in El Cajon, CA followed an all too familiar narrative.

The police were called to a scene where a black man was acting “erratically”; the police shouted commands at the man, who failed to comply out of his apparent “agitation” and abnormal mental state; the police open fired in response to what they saw as “threatening gesticulations”; another unarmed black man laid dead on the street.

Happening just weeks after the officer-involved shootings in Tulsa, OK and Charlotte, N.C that resulted in the deaths of Terence Crutcher and Keith Scott, the death of Alfred Olongo in El Cajon is yet another unsettling reminder of racism inherent in U.S. law enforcement agencies across the country.

As unfortunate as these deaths are, they are not new. In 2015, black people were killed by police at more than twice the rate of white people according to the Guardian’s database. This combined with the disproportionate amount of arrest and incarceration rates of blacks in the U.S shows a clear racial bias within law enforcement.

The American people are also divided in regards to their views of law enforcement.

Comparatively, the police are one of the most trusted institutions, with 56% of Americans having confidence in the police, up from 52% in 2015 according to Gallup polls. Yet, 30% of blacks show ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence in the police compared to 57% of whites. This disparity is largely the result of people’s encounters and experiences with law enforcement.

Public outcry in response to police violence against blacks has been strong and persistent, from organized protest to civil unrest. Groups like Black Lives Matter have begun to challenge politicians directly, including the 2016 presidential candidates.

Race and police violence was one of the topics of last Monday’s presidential debate and is an important issue in this election cycle. So far, the candidates have delivered contrary responses to address the issue, from the absurd re-implementing stop-and-frisk policing, which was ruled unconstitutional in New York on the grounds that it encouraged the profiling of black and latino men in 2013, to improving community-police relations–a sort of political panacea, an answer too simple for such a complex problem.

It is worth noting that neither candidate seemed comfortable discussing race during the debate; both were hesitant to specifically address police violence against blacks, choosing instead to talk vaguely about gun control, mutual respect, and “law and order.”

Even communities that claim improved community-police relations have recently seen cases of these shootings and have been susceptible to the civil unrest they bring. For example, the statements made by Charlotte mayor Jennifer Roberts in the wake of the killing of Keith Scott suggested that the anti-police protest were a surprise and uncharacteristic of that area.

In response to increased public pressure, cities have begun to implement police reforms, looking to body cameras and re-training as quick fixes for deeply embedded systemic racism. Such reforms too often focus on the actions of officers, rather than the policies that precede their actions.

They do not address, for example, why two armed officers with no medical support or training were sent to control a mentally ill man; why a 911 call placed to de-escalate a situation resulted in an unarmed man being shot dead; why so many officers responsible for such deaths walk away scot-free. They have failed to address the way in which officers (and everyday Americans) misperceive blacks as a threat; why black families must give their kids “the talk,” telling them how to interact when confronted by the police.

Though we should be critical of law enforcement (and any institution for that matter) and continue to call out targeted injustices, should we not be more critical of the 56% of Americans who show such high levels of confidence in law enforcement when people of color are disproportionately arrested and killed? After all, we live in a democracy, and the policies carried out by the police are a product of that system.

Until Americans view this as a threat to democracy and are ready for real, difficult conversations about policies and the embedded ideologies behind them, we will continue seeing the same narrative.
As President Obama said in response to the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile this past July, “When incidents like these occur, there’s a big chunk of our fellow citizens that feels as if because of the color of their skin, they are not being treated the same—and that hurts. And that should trouble all of us. This is not just a black issue. It’s not just a Hispanic issue. This is an American issue that we should all care about.”


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Joseph Spelde

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