Late last week, a jury in Minnesota inexplicably found Jeronimo Yanez not guilty of three charges related to the 74 second traffic stop during which Mr. Yanez shot seven bullets at Philando Castile, killing Mr. Castile and placing his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and her four year old daughter in great danger. If you’re not familiar with the case, Minnesota NPR has been doing a great job covering it in the podcast 74 seconds. It is a case of a police officer shooting and killing a Black man.
Just a few days after the verdict, people in Seattle finishing up Sunday breakfast learned about the killing of Charleena Lyles. Ms. Lyles was a Black, pregnant mother of four who lived in transitional housing. She had experience with intimate partner violence in the past, and had some mental health needs. She called 9-1-1 to report an attempted burglary; the Seattle PD showed up. They said she had a knife. They did not have Tasers. So they shot her.
In the social media spheres I inhabit, this has sparked outrage. People have been sharing articles, posting information about vigils and marches. Many have noted that the Seattle PD is operating under a consent decree because of their history of excessive violence coupled with discriminatory policing. Most are highly skeptical that this police action was justified.
But others are not pleased with this take. They assumed immediately that the information the officers gave was factual, and argued that the outrage so many are feeling at another killing of a Black person at the hands of the police is unwarranted.
I get that we do not have all the facts, and that none of us were there. We do have some audio, and some video. But there has been no full investigation.
And yet, I’d like to argue that it is a jerk move these days to accept at face value what police say when they kill a black person.
I am not saying there are never instances where violence ends up being warranted, but immediately choosing to believe that any Black person killed by the police has brought it on themselves suggests to me that people aren’t paying attention.
Such an attitude also centers the feelings of the police over the feelings of the victims. Even in an accident, the focus should first be on the person who was harmed. Instead, some people — including journalists — have chosen to focus on all the ways Ms. Lyles was troubled (reminiscent of the “he’s no angel” coverage of Michael Brown). The Seattle Times made the same mistake this week.
I generally focus this website on lighter topics (or try to), but I’m also a person living in the United States in 2017, where we continue to see police violence that is correlated with racism and implicit bias. Police have difficult jobs, but that does not mean they should not be held to high standards of conduct. We give them great amounts of power, and we must be skeptical when that power may have been abused.
As we have these discussions, I ask that more people seek not just to understand this specific incident, but to look at why so many people — especially Black people — are feeling such anguish over this. They aren’t simply imagining the police violence that has taken so many Black lives in recent years. Any one instance may have any number of reasons that the police feel justify their actions, but we need to be concerned about a system that has opened itself up to so much warranted doubt.
And as the discussion continues, we also need to be serious about what can be done to fix this. Things are not changing, and given the current Attorney General, it seems unlikely that the federal government can be counted on to ensure that our police officers are acting in a way that is truly protecting our citizens. So it is up to us, the people who live with and work with these officers, to demand action.
It can be hard, especially for those of us who grew up thinking that all police officers are here to help us, to come to realization that individuals officers and whole policing systems are failing us. This is not news to many populations, and there are many people out there who have been screaming from the hills, asking us to listen to them. Those of us who have been slow to recognize this problem not only owe everyone who has been telling us this an apology, but we owe them action.
Because an even bigger jerk move is to pretend that everything is fine as it is.