Today, electronic eyes are everywhere, and the once-submerged issue of encounters between police and black men is coming into public view. It’s creating increasing tensions between blacks — regardless of their income and professional status — and police who have muscled up to fight everything from seat-belt violations to terrorism.
The video phenomenon started in 1991 with an amateur photographer’s tape of Rodney King being beaten by police in Los Angeles after a car chase. That led to riots after a jury acquitted four police officers who used a stun gun on King and struck him with their batons more than 50 times. The LAPD was found to be afflicted by corruption and racial bias.
The King tape was a fluke of confirmation for abuse that usually took place out of sight or was simply witnessed, not recorded. Now, a camera is always on. As the recorded altercations become more prolific, they’re forming a narrative of police who take excessive action against black men.
Police are naturally on edge in some encounters because they work in a nation awash in guns and anyone they stop may be armed. But in other cases, heavy-handed treatment of minor infractions makes the situation worse.
These videos go viral and suggest a problem far more widespread than it is. Most police officers are peace officers. They try to settle disputes and defuse confrontations, often at risk to themselves. Rogue cops make good theater, but they are rare and ultimately do at least as much damage to the image of their fellow officers as they do to the subjects of their abuse.
If the abuses are less frequent than the Internet makes them seem, they are nonetheless real and often shockingly so. Recent videos captured a man violently subdued in New York City for selling loose cigarettes. He was overweight and asthmatic and desperately said he couldn’t breathe as an officer held him in a chokehold. He later died.
In South Carolina, a white state trooper’s vehicle-mounted camera captured him shooting an unarmed black man he had stopped for a seat belt violation. The trooper was fired.
Another recent video taken by a smartphone inside a car in Hammond, Indiana, shows a police officer smashing the car’s passenger-side window after the passenger, a black man, refused to exit until he could talk with a superior officer. An officer reached in, used a Taser on the passenger and arrested him for resisting law enforcement.
Surprisingly, the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, was without a video record. But the local police made up for that visual deficit by leaving Brown’s body on the street for four hours and later rolling out in military vehicles and riot gear to meet protesters.
Other encounters are not so dramatic, but the message is the same. Last week Fuquay-Varina police entered a home with guns drawn to confront a black teen after a neighbor reported a possible burglary. The teen lived in the home as the foster child of white foster parents and told that to police. The officers weren’t convinced and ended up using pepper spray on the teen and handcuffing him because he became belligerent and profane.
Last week, a black mother of three boys called to tell me about the experience of her 18-year-old son. He delivers sandwiches on a bicycle for a popular sandwich shop. Someone called police to say the bicycle looked like one that had been stolen.
A detective went to the shop to question the young man and handcuffed him in front of his co-workers. The issue was cleared up. The bike was his, and he was released. His mother felt it was another instance of police treating a young black man with more suspicion than warranted, the kind of encounter that can escalate if the subject takes offense.
The mother called the detective, who was polite and explained his actions, but she left the experience miffed that she was supposed to be relieved that nothing worse happened.
“Am I supposed to be happy that I didn’t get a phone call that my son had been shot?” she asked. What makes it worse, she said, is that her son was “doing the right thing” by working, not engaged in some activity that might naturally draw a police response.
Last week U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke to police groups. He called for a commission to review police training and tactics.
The review group would be similar to the Commission on Law Enforcement President Lyndon Johnson appointed to address violent crime in the 1960s. But this time, the problem isn’t a rise in crime, it’s a perception of rising police aggressiveness that’s generating civilian cynicism and anger. The commission should look at the nature of police work and how police can serve and protect the public in a way that promotes respect, not fear.
Ned Barnett is the editorial page editor of the Charlotte Observer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2014 The Charlotte Observer