Editor’s note: This week, The Root will examine the many facets of law enforcement and its effects on the black community with our weeklong series Unprotected, Underserved: The Policing of Black America.
He was 23 years old. He needed their protection. He needed their service. So he called the police. They shot him. He is paralyzed. He is 24 years old. He is black.
That is an adequate, undisputed summary of what happened to Brendan Hester on June 2, 2017.
According to court documents, Hester was asleep at the home in Ashtabula, Ohio, that he shared with his brother, his brother’s girlfriend and his brother’s 2-year-old daughter. He awoke to sounds of screaming and found his brother, Chuck, wrestling with an armed intruder on the stairs. Chuck pleaded with Hester to go get his gun, so Hester ran to his room, grabbed the firearm, subdued the intruder and held the man at gunpoint until police arrived.
Two white police officers responded to the 911 call. When they entered the home, they saw Hester holding a gun. He did not point the weapon or threaten the officers at any point, according to a complaint filed by Hester’s attorneys.
But before the cops gave Hester a chance to drop the weapon or explain the situation, Officer Daniel Gillespie opened fire with an AR-15 rifle, shooting Hester in the back.
Brendan Hester would never walk again.
“Never, ever call the police.”
When I or other writers at The Root report on police violence, one commenter repeatedly posts this warning. While the admonition may seem harshly broad, it echoes the sentiments of many people in the black community. Police are supposed to be the protectors and servants of the public. But in black communities, they are often seen as predators. Too often, black people become the unwitting prey of law enforcement officers who disproportionately feast on black bodies.
But, as with most predators, there are always leftovers—the collateral damage of overly abusive practices by law enforcement officers. All over America, black communities are littered with remnants of police predators. These forgotten victims usually fall into one or more of three categories.
1. The Survivors
According to a lawsuit against the city of Ashtabula and Officers Gillespie and Spencer Gale, Brendan Hester has no use of his legs and “is “only minimally able to use his arms and hands. He is wheelchair-bound and dependent upon others to assist him with basic needs.”
But Hester is not alone.
In discussions of the effects of police brutality, the conversation often defaults to the people who were shot and killed by police officers. Rarely mentioned are the people left to deal with the aftermath of the inordinate police violence in black communities.
- Leon Ford was paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair after Pittsburgh officers mistook him for someone else and pulled him over. The cops said that they noticed a gun and shot Ford in the chest. There was no gun.
- Levar Jones was parked at a convenience store when South Carolina State Trooper Sean Groubert asked Jones for his license. Even though Jones complied in every way, Groubert shot Jones for reaching into his car to retrieve his wallet, traumatizing him for life.
- Seventeen-year-old Ulysses Wilkerson was beaten by Troy, Ala., police so badly that he had to be rushed to an out-of-town trauma center. The cops dropped him off in handcuffs so that he could be treated for three fractures to his eye socket and swelling to his brain.
- Wake County, N.C., Deputy Cameron Broadwell and North Carolina State Highway Patrol Troopers Michael Blake and Tabithia Davis broke Kyron Hinton’s eye socket and nose before releasing a police dog on him. Aside from suffering more than 20 dog bites to his face and body, Hinton still suffers memory loss.
Incidents like these receive far less attention because the victims survive, although the assaults are no less brutal and are as much a violation of the law as when a victim dies.
Maybe survivors receive less attention because police would rather kill the people they brutalize.
It is impossible to ignore the fact that killing a suspect often means that no witnesses are left to testify against violent officers. Even though police cameras are becoming more prevalent, eyewitness testimony was crucial in every single case over the past 13 years in which a police officer was convicted by a jury for an on-duty killing.
Now-former Police Officer Michael Slager would have gotten away with killing Walter Scott if a passerby didn’t happen to film it on a cellphone. Other than the police who were present, there were no witnesses to the deaths of Dejuan Guillory, Sandra Bland, Samuel Dubose and Charleena Lyles. Part of the reason no police officers ever stood trial for these killings is that the only witnesses are dead.
In fact, in the county where police officers kill their citizens most often, Kern County, Calif., Sheriff Donny Youngblood was caught on camera telling officers that it is “better financially” to kill a suspect than to injure them because, Youngblood said, “if they’re crippled, we get to take care of them for life. And that cost goes way up.”
2. The Families
Even when police manage to comply with Youngblood’s theory and successfully kill citizens, they still leave behind family members who suffer the consequences of their losses.
One of the most heartbreaking experiences a human being can suffer is to see their children and other loved ones lose their lives. Samaria Rice sent her son Tamir to play at the park. Lezley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr. still grieve for their son, Michael Brown Jr. Aries Clark was 16 years old when he was killed by police.
Nicole Paultre Bell was hours away from being wed to Sean Bell, the father of her 4-year-old daughter. Korryn Gaines was holding her son in her arms when police shot her. The daughter of Philando Castile’s girlfriend was in the back seat when Officer Jeronimo Yanez shot Castile. Charleena Lyles left four children who will grow up without a mother. Dejuan Guillory had two sons.
In 2016, 214 of the 266 black people who were killed by police were parents, according to The Root’s review of The Guardian’s database of people killed by police.
Police violence not only turns black communities into graveyards but also turns children into orphans and families into mourners.
3. The Communities
When police brutality happens, not only are the victims and the families of the victims affected, but the entire black community frequently suffers the consequences.
A recent study by British researchers found that police shootings had significant effects on the mental health of African Americans when the shooting occurred in the state where the subjects lived, including anxiety and depression. The researchers did not find similar results for white Americans.
This disproportionate police violence leads to mistrust of police performance in black communities, while white people feel the opposite. According to Pew Research, blacks are half as likely as whites to perceive police in a positive light.
Thirty-three percent of black people feel that police use the right amount of force in most situations, in stark contrast with the 75 percent of whites who feel that way. Thirty-one percent of black people feel that police in their communities are held accountable for their misconduct, compared with 70 percent of whites.
This fear and mistrust doesn’t just mean that black people feel unsafe; it manifests itself into a definable, measurable reality that affects entire black communities, making them less safe.
Police shootings happen more often in black neighborhoods, even though there is no correlation between the racial disparity in police shootings and the crime rates in the communities in which they occur, according to a 2015 study by researcher Cody Ross.
The racial biases in police brutality, sentencing and arrests make black people less likely to report crimes. A 2016 report by Harvard researchers (pdf) found that people in black neighborhoods are less likely to call 911 to report crimes in the days immediately following a police beating.
Therefore, part of the reason that crime persists in black neighborhoods is not an overabundance of criminals but an awareness that the police are more likely to shoot, kill or brutalize innocent black people.
Contrary to what they tell you, all lives don’t matter.
Ask Brendan Hester.