Why do we believe that police officers who execute black men are afraid of them?
Police officers who are investigated or tried for killing black men regularly employ some degree of fear to justify the murder. It’s absurd.
Now there may be times when the fear is legitimate. An officer-involved shooting in my Charlotte neighborhood last week initially appears to be one of those cases. But in other situations, the fear is not supported by facts. Across America, police use fear to justify killing unarmed black men who ran toward them (North Carolina), who ran away (South Carolina), who had their hands up (New York) who lay on the ground (Florida), who followed orders (Minnesota) and who didn’t (Oklahoma).
Just like no executioner fears the pitied soul that lays prostrate before him, the actions of these officers show that they don’t fear black men either. This is murder.
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Nevertheless, the officers use fear to avoid trouble. For example, in California officers kicked and clubbed an unarmed black man 56 times, nearly killing Rodney King. But at trial, these officers were emotional and said that they were afraid. In New York, officers shot an unarmed black male, Amadou Diallo, 41 times. At trial, those officers cried on the witness stand. In Charlotte, an officer shot unarmed Jonathan Ferrell 10 to 12 times. On the stand, he was emotional and afraid.
We might think it’s fear, but it’s not. The police have been killing black men since the American Revolution. From the era depicted by Roots to the Civil Rights movement, police have been using dogs, guns, hoses, and batons to kill black men for 400 years. They weren’t afraid then. So why are they afraid today?
Because now our system holds officers to a different standard for homicides. If the deceased didn’t break any laws and no other valid reason exists, then officers can be held criminally liable. Consequently, officers often use fear to avoid trouble. It works.
These officers don’t fear black men; they fear being held accountable. Who holds them accountable? The public. But sadly, the public fears black men. So officers play on this implicit bias to their advantage.
That’s what happened in Charlotte with the Keith Lamont Scott shooting. Then-District Attorney Andrew Murray used implicit bias tactics to paint a picture of the deceased as a scary black male with a mental condition and a gun. (This character assassination happens all the time.) The officer then chimed in and said the deceased “just had like this evil look.” The public filled in the blanks: the officer was afraid of this dangerous, armed, evil black man. That is why the officer killed him. Case closed.
We buy this nonsense because in every narrative there is a good guy and a bad guy. A hero and a villain. And in officer-involved shootings, officers are perceived as good guys and, because of implicit bias, black males are the bad guys.
I believe most cops are good, but bad cops exist too. Did you know that in Mecklenburg County, 70 percent of all complaints against the police are filed by other officers? Good cops report bad cops. But too often, the public fails to hold bad cops accountable. Why? Fear. Police do not fear black men, America. You do.
Romain is an assistant public defender in Mecklenburg. Email: Toussaint.Romain@