‘We only kill black people’? We need to talk

The Observer editorial board

Protesters and family members of Philando Castile gathered in St. Paul, Minn., in June after the officer who shot him was cleared.
Protesters and family members of Philando Castile gathered in St. Paul, Minn., in June after the officer who shot him was cleared. AP

It doesn’t get much more blatantly offensive than a white police officer saying cops “only kill black people,” no matter the context. That’s probably why Lt. Greg Abbott’s supervisor in the Cobb County Police Department was so quick to announce that Abbott would be fired shortly after video of Abbott saying just that surfaced.

That’s an understandable response, given the ongoing, heated national debate about police shootings and what role race plays in those shootings and cases of police brutality. That doesn’t mean it is a sufficient response, given the complexity of the issue and its growing prominence. Firing Officer Abbott, or allowing him to quickly retire, doesn’t help solve the broader issue, a growing divide and lack of trust between police and the communities of color they have the responsibility to serve.

Abbott’s lawyer claimed Abbott was trying to get the compliance of an uncooperative white motorist who was afraid to follow his commands because she was aware of a bevy of videos of police officers shooting people, which has been driving a debate about how we are policed. She was afraid to put her hands down to retrieve her phone and call her husband, as Abbott instructed her, thinking she might be the next person shot.

“But you’re not black,” Abbott told her. “Remember, we only kill black people. Yeah, we only kill black people, right?”

We don’t know if Abbott was sarcastically expressing a well-known frustration in police departments throughout the country – that men and women in uniform have been unfairly maligned during the debate about how we are policed – or if he was trying to use the image of dead black people to try to convince a white person to comply. No matter. He had to be disciplined.

The conversation must not stop there, though. Abbott’s words gave credence to black Americans who have long felt wronged by the criminal justice system and police tactics that seem to be used more harshly against them than their white counterparts. His words cut deeply. That a police officer felt comfortable making those comments while on duty and in uniform – which didn’t spark an internal investigation until a media outlet made the 2016 video public – has the potential to deepen the distrust communities of color have developed against the police.

His words also speak to the siege mentality that has developed among police officers, even if that wasn’t Abbott’s intent. Officers who are trying to serve the public well, and with the best of intentions, feel alienated every time the public jumps to conclusions before the facts of a shooting are gathered and as the number of Americans afraid of even being in the presence of a badge seems to grow.

Abbott may be the wrong vessel, but his words provide another chance to grapple with these confounding issues. Each side feels backed into a corner, and with good reason. That’s an untenable reality. Being willing to understand and empathize with the very real frustrations shared on both sides of the divide is a good place to start.