Returning Police Brutality to the National Agenda

A recent videotape of a drunk police officer mocking a black murder victim underscores the need to refocus federal efforts around police training.


It’s one of the depressing ironies of black life that in the Obama era, black mothers and fathers must continue giving their teenage sons “the talk.” I’m not talking about the birds and the bees. I’m talking about the “how to act when the police stop you” talk. Rule 1. Don’t talk back to the officer. Rule 2. It doesn’t matter if you weren’t doing anything wrong. Rule 3. And this is critical, don’t reach for your wallet without asking the officer first. Supplemental rule. Carry a pink cell phone if you can. A black cell phone may look like a gun to a nervous cop.

Such is the ongoing reality of the tense and too often violent encounters between black men and white police officers. Of course, the vast majority of interactions between black men and white cops don’t turn violent. But the cases in which they inexplicably do are disturbing and frequent enough that learning how to deal with the cops is a rite of passage for young black men, from the ’hood to the suburbs. The recent case involving the cell phone video of a drunk, white, off-duty police officer in Erie, Pa., making crude jokes about a black murder victim and ridiculing the victim’s grieving mother, illustrates part of the problem. The insensitivity of the officer reveals how some white officers—most of whom often reside far from the black communities they patrol—devalue the lives of black men and their families. In the case of the officer in Erie, he joked that he and his partners regarded the murdered black man as just “one less drug dealer”—even though there’s no evidence that the murder victim was involved with drugs at all. The NAACP has called for the dismissal of the officer and for a more direct and comprehensive apology than the tepid one offered by the Erie Police Department.

But of even greater concern than one officer’s drunken tirade is a spate of deaths of black men at the hands of police over the past few months, in locations as diverse as Oakland, Calif., and Winnfield, La.

In Oakland, cell phone camera videotapes seemed to confirm eyewitness accounts of the shooting of Oscar Grant III, an unarmed and apparently unresistant 22-year-old black man, in the early hours of New Year’s Day. Lying on his stomach on the platform of a BART subway station platform, Grant reportedly pleaded for his life, telling the officer, “I got a 4-year-old daughter.” Grant was shot in the back and died on the scene. The incident led to weeks of unrest in Oakland.

Louisiana has turned up a pair of disturbing police killings, including that of Bernard Monroe, a 73-year-old man who was shot and killed in his front yard by police as his family looked on in horror. The local NAACP branch vice president contends that the police in Homer, La., routinely harass black residents. “People here are afraid of the police,” she concluded. In response, the Homer police chief reportedly stated that he wants young black men walking down the street “to be afraid [that] every time they see the police . . . they might get arrested.” Presumably elderly black men walking in their front yard should be similarly intimidated.