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.
In Dallas, 23-year-old Robbie Tolan, a minor league baseball player and the son of former Major League Baseball player Bobbie Tolan, was shot in his own drivewayin an affluent white suburb on New Year’s Eve. White police officers, purportedly believing that the SUV driven by Tolan and his cousin was stolen, approached the young black men and ordered them to lie down on the ground. The car belonged to Tolan’s parents, and the officers reportedly did not identify themselves. When Tolan’s parents came outside to find out what was happening, one of the officers allegedly shoved Mrs. Tolan against the garage. Robbie Tolan yelled to the officer to stop pushing his mother, and that, witnesses say, is when he was shot by one of the officers. Tolan was recently released from the hospital with the bullet still lodged in his liver.
One needn’t walk through the serial incidents of innocent black men killed at the hands of New York City cops over the past 10 years. If you don’t know about Sean Bell, the young man shot and killed by police outside his bachelor party, or Amadou Diallo—shot at 41 times by police—you’ve been living under a rock.
The results of these incidents are depressingly predictable. Outrage. Marches. Most often no indictment. Sometimes an indictment. Always an acquittal. More marches. Next incident.
The stunning lack of change suggests that our protest-oriented approach to police brutality must focus less on punishment for individual officers, and more on systemic institutional changes within our police academies and departments. Real police training in the areas of racial sensitivity and diversity is woefully insufficient in many academies. But such training should be mandatory and intense for all officers who patrol our streets and highways armed with deadly weapons. The fact that many white officers do not come from or live in the black communities they patrol produces potential problems as well. We need to increase dramatically financial incentives to officers who live in, or at least adjacent to the neighborhoods where they work.
Being a bigot ought to be a disqualifying factor for police recruits, and more rigorous personality testing should be employed to flesh this out. Most importantly, police department leaders should impose zero tolerance on discrimination and bigotry in the ranks. Even something as seemingly tangential as stricter tests for physical fitness tests for officers might be called for. One of the excuses offered for the Pikes incident was that the officer’s partner had just returned to patrol after triple bypass surgery and couldn’t assist his partner in subduing Pikes. But a high-powered Taser in the hands of a young, inexperienced officer is not an appropriate replacement for a physically fit partner. In fact, the increasing use of tasers by police departments across the country should be fully examined and reviewed.
As the Justice Department continues to reshape itself under Attorney General Eric Holder, we need to return some federal attention to the issue of police brutality. The incidents we’ve seen over the past months are reflective of a pattern, and not an unfamiliar one. Often they involve white cops, but some black cops also engage in police brutality. The victims of excessive force are disproportionately black or Latino. It’s time we take up again a national dialogue about police misconduct and offer financial incentives to jurisdictions whose departments undertake rigorous diversity training programs, vigorously investigate and punish officers for wrongdoing, and significantly improve their records with civilian complaint review boards.
In this period of new beginnings and change, we should take up the issue of race and police brutality with candor, respect and with an eye toward solutions. Then maybe “the talk” black parents have with their young sons can focus more exclusively on how to avoid the pitfalls of criminal life (and, of course, the birds and the bees), and not how to avoid getting killed by the police.
Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and a civil rights lawyer.