By Juan Peralez / Herald Forum
With the death of Tyre Nichols last month in Memphis, Tenn., another young Black man was killed by police in America. So what else is new?
In terms of police killing Black people, nothing. Over the last six years, an average of 234 Blacks have been killed each year by police except for 2021 when the number was 171. Of that figure an average of 24 each month were unarmed. That means that about six unarmed Black people die at the hands of police each week or almost one a day in America. The lower number (171) in 2021, may be due to the uproar, marches and protests by the Black Lives Matter movement and its supporters.
That attention is the reason a lot of good police accountability legislation was passed in Washington state in 2021. Of significance is the legislation that will create an independent investigations office under the governor’s office to address police killings and misconduct. No more police investigating police for serious police misconduct resulting in crippling bodily harm or death. Coming, as well, is an independent prosecutor’s office.
Tyre Nichols died at the hands of police during a traffic stop. Too many traffic stops by police have ended in police brutality or someone getting shot. House Bill 1513 being considered in the state Legislature would help reduce traffic stops and deaths at the hands of police by not requiring police to stop drivers with expired license tabs, burnt-out tail lights or other non-moving violations.
One noticeable difference following Nichols’ death was the rapid firing of five Black police officers involved in the deadly beating. Would the reaction of the Memphis police Department been the same if the officers were white? I think we all know the answer to that only because we have seen far too many cases when white officers’ actions have been declared justified. The beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers in 1991 and the acquittals of three officers comes to mind.
The question that must be asked by police officers of color is why the difference in response in this case. The other question they must ask is, why was I fired for doing what I am trained to do? Will these officers again be referred to as simply bad apples ? That excuse is getting old and has never been true. As a former police officer, King County Sheriff and former director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission Sue Rhar wrote in an article for The Atlantic: “There is no such thing as a bad apple, the culture is rotten.”
Historically, police have been used to maintain order for those in power. Examples are the slave patrols, enforcement of Jim Crow laws, union busting and the War on Drugs in Black communities, while white drug users escaped the harshest penalties. Current police culture accepts, rationalizes and makes excuses for indefensible behavior and prioritizes group loyalty over speaking out. Although police officers are provided a vest, guns, tasers, protective equipment and training that reduces the dangers of the job nothing assuages the fear of being ostracized by the group. White America generally sees law enforcement as a noble profession addressing the line between good and evil which has created a group identity and intensifies the us versus them mentality. The insular culture of policing protects the flattering myth of heroes and hides the original mission of policing.
What we have in this country is aggressive, militarized policing that is cruel and racist, targeting communities of color. Police have an ongoing campaign to suppress and contain the Black community. We must challenge the status quo of policing culture, and police must see themselves as part of the community and not something they are set against. We must do away with the current culture rooted in a tribal mentality built on a false myth of a war between good and evil. What is needed is cultural transformation that promotes a mission of peace. A mission that won’t drive officers to lose their humanity.
There is a saying that what people fear most is change. When it comes to policing in America, Black and brown people want change desperately to stop the occupation of their communities by police and to end the unjustified shooting of members of their community.
Over 30 years from the Rodney King beating to the Tyre Nichols beating resulting in his tragic death. When will the general public demand positive change and when will police officers realize the true mission behind their profession. Police officers need to demand a change in the culture of policing themselves to make the change happen and to preserve their humanity.
Juan Peralez is president of Unidos of Snohomish County.
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