Terrorism is violence perpetrated against peaceable people to foment social or political change. The murder of police officers in Dallas was an act of terrorism.
On the evening of Thursday, July 7, at the location of an otherwise peaceful protest of recent troubling police killings of black men, Micah Xavier Johnson murdered five Dallas police officers and shot seven more for explicitly racist reasons.
Although “officials at first speculated about multiple shooters,” apparently Johnson acted alone, the New York Times reports. During a standoff Johnson (who was black) told police that his aim was to murder white police officers, and “his Facebook page showed that he supported the New Black Panther Party, a group that has advocated violence against whites, and Jews in particular,” the Times reports. This was an act of terror motivated by racism.
We can have pointless debates about whether racism pertains to institutions and so “black people can’t be racist.” Those who wish to pretend that “racism” means something other than what its root term indicates, that we cannot distinguish personal racism from institutional racism, and that we must substitute the term “color prejudice” to refer to personal bigotry are free to do so. Such a debate will not change the fact that the Dallas murderer marked police officers for death because of the color of their skin. Racism is just as ugly whatever you call it.
Like all decent people who heard the news, I was heartbroken to hear of this horrific crime—heartbroken and angry. Dallas officers were protecting the protesters, sometimes even posing with them for friendly photos, and someone started killing them in irrational, bigoted rage. Sickening.
Don’t Blame Obama
One type of claim I saw in my Twitter feed after the murders is that Barack Obama somehow had something to do with inflaming passions against the police, and therefore he shares moral culpability for the Dallas murders. Such claims are wrong.
For example, the Colorado Senate GOP referred to “the division, fear, lawlessness and almost total lack of ‘domestic tranquility’ he [Obama] leaves in his wake.” I’ve heard conservative radio hosts make similar claims.
The evidence supposedly behind such claims remains fuzzy. What I find is a mostly-responsible handling of these troubling issues. In discussing the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, black men recently shot to death by police officers for questionable reasons, Obama talks about investigating the evidence in the cases at hand, reducing “the appearance or reality of racial bias in law enforcement,” and maintaining “respect and appreciation for the vast majority of police officers who put their lives on the line to protect us.” Admirably, he closes by calling for “a future where all of our children know that their lives matter.”
If Obama deserves criticism for these remarks, it is for seeming to prematurely conclude that the police shootings of Castile and Sterling were unjustified. Certainly available video raises serious questions about those deaths; however, the more I read about the cases, the less certain I am about essential facts surrounding them. (What conclusions I might ultimately draw about these two cases, if any, have no bearing on my broader belief that, yes, African Americans often suffer injustice at the hands of police.)
As John Lott points out, Obama also wrongly infers racist motives “whenever there is any disparity in outcomes, no matter what the cause.” Lott notes that “higher arrest rates or prison-sentence lengths” are probably due to more criminal activity, particularly by gangs. But it’s not like misstating the implications of statistics is an uncommon error. Certainly I don’t think Obama’s mistakes put “cops’ lives in danger,” as the article’s headline blares.
At any rate, I haven’t seen anything that would support attributing any blame to Obama for the murders in Dallas.
Those eager to point the finger at Obama might remember how upsetting and unjust it is when leftists blame peaceable gun owners and the National Rifle Association for violent crimes.
Do Blame Violence-Inspiring Rhetoric
Obviously primary moral culpability for the atrocity in Dallas lies with the man who pulled the trigger.
Yet we can talk about lesser moral culpability for those who actively promote violence.
Consider the remarks of Eddie Glaude Jr., chair of African American Studies at Princeton: “[My father] said a long time ago . . . , ‘If they don’t do something, we’re going to start killing them. Somebody’s going to start killing cops. . . . ‘ That conversation has been had, and it’s been had before.”
The idea here is that, if some police officers treat African Americans unjustly, police officers will be targeted by some for indiscriminate violence. Never mind that the victims might be the best members of their forces who work hard to justly enforce the law in order to protect people’s rights.
Yes, those who publicly sanction violence against the police, those who carry signs reading “F**k the Police” or “Put Wings on Pigs” or the like, bear some moral culpability if others act on that advice.
Victimizing the Best
As Radley Balko, long a critic of police violence, explains, Dallas’s “police department is a national model for community policing.” He goes on to explain that Chief David Brown has instituted serious reforms regarding the use of force, overseen a drop in officer-involved shootings, “fired more than 70 Dallas cops” for abusive behavior, and “implemented a policy of collecting and releasing data on all use-of-force incidents” (among other things).
Balko summarizes, “In 2014, murders in the city hit a 50-year low. At the same time, both use of force and citizen complaints about excessive force dropped dramatically.” It is Brown who had to watch five of his officers gunned down.
Those who do not discriminate between good cops and abusive cops are no better, morally, than those who treat all black people as criminals. Those who say “f**k the police” and the like, because some officers violate others’ rights, are no better, morally, than those who say “f**k black people” because some black people violate others’ rights. Bigotry does not somehow become excusable because it targets a different group.
Yes, Racism Is Real
On July 9 I listened to a police officer on NPR talk about how, on the job, he had to deal with racism of people he interacted with. Imagine how much worse it is for a black man who has to interact with a racist cop.
Consider what former Santa Fe police chief Donald Grady II relates to the Atlantic:
As a police chief, I have been stopped numerous times by police officers claiming that there was some violation with my car until they realized that I’m just a law-abiding citizen. I don’t identify myself as a cop when I’m in those circumstances, I just let them do what they are going to do. And like so many other African Americans I just say “yes, sir,” “no, sir” and let it go at that. But after a while you get tired of being stopped for doing nothing. After a while, even as a police chief, you get really tired of being put upon. There’s a thing that we call freedom of movement which is really revered in this country—that we should have the right to move freely without impingement from the police simply because.
Darryl Glenn, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Colorado, shared similar views:
[N]o single group of people does more to protect black Americans on a daily basis than our police. That’s the truth that we hardly ever hear.
At the same time, we must also admit that racism in America is real, and that there is a reason the relationship between police and the black community is so damaged. If you are a black person growing up in America, chances are pretty good that you have experienced the police pulling you over in front of your mother’s house because you “had a headlight out.” (This kind of thing has happened to me more than once.) You’ve probably been pulled over because you were driving a nice car in the wrong neighborhood. You’ve probably been asked to step out of your car for awhile and then released without being given a reason.
Unless you have lived through an experience like this, you cannot understand how violating it feels, or what it does to your ability to feel safe in your city—to trust the people who are supposed to protect you. Think about what this does to our children: if you’re a black child watching CNN this week and you see video like the one in Minnesota, how are you not supposed to wonder if you are safe around police when you see them?
Yes, racism in law enforcement is a real phenomenon. At the same time, racism is not the norm in law enforcement—at least today in most areas. And it is not the main threat to African Americans.
Fatal Police Shootings: The Numbers
It is obvious to anyone who bothers to look that, by and large, police in America do not single out African Americans for lethal violence.
As the Washington Post reports, in 2015 police fatally shot some 990 people. Of these, 258 were black. One might argue that blacks are disproportionately involved in lethal police shootings, but one might also respond that blacks are disproportionately involved in violent crime.
In the large majority of these cases, the victim had a deadly weapon, and, at least according to officers, an attack was in progress.
It’s impossible to say, without independently and carefully evaluating the facts in each case, what fraction of these cases involved a justified shooting versus an unjustified one. My guess is that in the overwhelming majority of cases a reasonable person would judge the shooting justified.
Of course, the goal should be to minimize the use of lethal force by officers while preserving or improving the safety of officers. But, in the real world, there are some very bad people who will do very bad things to others unless a police officer stops the person with potentially lethal force. In these cases, officers deserve our support and sympathy, not our condemnation.
Racism Is Mostly Not Why Black People Die
Recall that, in 2015, some 258 black people died at the hands of police. In most of those cases, the shootings were justified.
In 2014, the CDC reports (see Table 12), of 15,809 total homicides, blacks accounted for 7,876 of those—about half, which is shocking. We know that in the large majority of cases (in the neighborhood of 90+ percent) black victims of homicide were killed by other blacks (just as whites were killed by whites).
An average black man’s greatest danger (in terms of homicide) is not the police—it is, by a multiple of several hundred, other black men. (Obviously the problem is mostly limited to a small subset of the black population associated with violent crime and gang violence.)
Yes, there is something particularly egregious about a police officer abusing his authority, whether out of racism or some other motive. Yes, we need to take every reasonable step to get bad cops off the force and to improve training and accountability for police.
Yet it also seems that some people use police abuses as an excuse to avoid addressing the rampant problem of violent crime within a subset of the African American population.
Here are a few things I wish people would keep in mind after this heart-wrenching week:
* It is as senseless to presume that police officers are always in the wrong as it is to presume they’re always in the right. Judge the facts of each case independently.
* The fact that many African Americans have suffered injustice at the hands of police does not prove that, in a particular case, the officer is in the wrong.
* It is wrong to jump to conclusions about the facts in a given case to promote a social or political agenda.
* People who wish to live in a civilized society support the rule of law and the painstakingly objective evaluation of the relevant facts.
* Good video of violent episodes protects the good guys on both sides of the blue line. The problem with the video of Castile’s death is that we can’t see the shooting itself and what led up to it. Had the officer been wearing a body camera, we’d probably know with reasonable certainly who is telling the truth and who is not. And officers who know they are being filmed are more likely to avoid abusive behavior in the first place.
* If a questionable police shooting turns out to be justified, that does not indicate that serious reforms of the criminal justice system are somehow not important. Likewise, the fact that five Dallas cops were brutally murdered should not distract from such reforms. One injustice does not excuse another, in any direction.
This has been a hell of a year in many ways, and the murders in Dallas have traumatized the entire nation. This strikes me as a good time to remember the ideals that bring us together as Americas, most importantly the ideals of individual rights and equality under the law. I don’t care what color your hands are; I care that we join hands in the pursuit of a fuller realization of those ideals.
Require Police Body Cams
Maybe the most valuable role of body cams will be to make police officers less likely to abuse their authority. The close second is to exonerate police officers who are in an incident. And a close third is to get rid of bad cops. If I were a police officer that last item would be important to me. Bad cops make my job harder and make it more likely that I’ll be shot by a civilian.