Of Danger and Double Standards: Police, Prison and Preferential Treatment

Published on Alternet, www.alternet.org, under the title, “Shot by Cops? Not if You’re White,” 5/22/01

After my recent article excoriating the Cincinnati police for their well-documented brutality against black residents (including the shooting of an unarmed young man wanted for seatbelt violations), I received many irate e-mails from folks proclaiming that I just didn’t know how difficult it was to be a police officer. As such, they insisted I shouldn’t be so quick to judge cops who shoot criminal suspects. After all, hesitation in the face of danger could cost an officer his or her life, not to mention the lives of innocent bystanders. When criminals brandish weapons (or even when they don’t but are thought to have one), the police have little choice but to shoot, said my detractors, no exceptions.

Yeah, well, tell that to the Nashville, Tennessee police department. Apparently it is quite possible to hold fire and defuse a dangerous situation when one feels like it. It is quite possible not to shoot a suspect, even when he most definitely has a gun and is firing it directly at officers and their cars. All that is required for police to show this restraint is that the suspect himself must be an officer.

Last week, thirteen-year police veteran, Sgt. Mark Nelson, distraught over being dumped by the female officer he’d been dating, went to the apartment of her new boyfriend (also a cop), while both were inside. He attempted to gain entry, fired shots randomly into the air, and when police arrived, proceeded to shoot at three officers and put bullet holes in their vehicles. He then threatened to shoot down a news helicopter, and held an entire neighborhood essentially hostage for four hours: all down the road from an elementary school that was letting out for the day.

Now imagine that this overwrought, gun-toting individual had been a civilian, especially a young black man. How long do you think it would have taken for police on the scene to drop him in a hail of bullets? In a nation where black men are shot dozens of times for brandishing wallets and cell phones, it doesn’t take a genius to guess that the time needed to “resolve” the situation would have been well short of 240 minutes. But in Nelson’s case, his fellow officers insisted that he posed “no real threat” to them or the general public. After calm and rational negotiation, he laid down his weapon and was taken into custody.

Apparently, who constitutes a “real threat” is in the none-too-objective eye of the beholder. Unlike the black officer who was beaten senseless a few years ago by white Nashville cops who didn’t recognize him as “one of their own,” Nelson was immediately considered family. Never mind that he pointed and discharged his weapon at his brothers in blue: Mark Nelson was a friend, a colleague, and white. So the danger that would likely have been assumed had he been dark or a civilian was dismissed. He was cut slack.

How nice it would be if we could say the same about Timothy Thomas in Cincinnati, or Amadou Diallo in New York, or Tyisha Miller in Riverside, California, or Carl Hardiman in Chicago, or hundreds more I could name had I the space to do so. Hell, in the case of Nashville police, two young men, one white and one black, were recently shot in the back of the heads for trying to back up their cars and escape arrest. The reason? Because their vehicles were seen as threats to the officers’ lives in a way that Mark Nelson’s bullets were not. Funny how some folks are seen as dangerous and others aren’t, some worthy of harsh treatment, and others not. Consider recent goings-on in Florida, for further confirmation.

With the convictions of Lionel Tate and Nathaniel Brazille for murder (both black, both just into their teens, and both going away for a long time) the Sunshine State has demonstrated that so far as they are concerned, one can never be too young to go to prison. However, apparently one can be too white to go there. Late last year, a Tampa judge refused to send a 41-year old white drug felon to prison, despite his having violated parole, for no reason other than he was white, and thin, and would be “impossible to protect” in the Florida State Penitentiary. In other words, he would most certainly be gang-raped by black and brown men, who apparently are never too thin or too weak for a cozy jail cell. According to the judge, “I’m not going to send a man like this to Florida State prison. That is cruel and unusual punishment in my book.”

Don’t get me wrong: I certainly don’t fault a decision to send a drug offender to rehab instead of prison, nor to hold fire in the case of Nelson. Both were humane and appropriate decisions. But in these cases, said decisions were made for entirely inappropriate reasons. Drug offenders shouldn’t go to jail, not because they are white, but because imprisonment is an absurd response to drug use or abuse. So too is imprisonment absurd for thirteen and fourteen year olds like Nate Brazille and Lionel Tate. And whenever possible, criminal suspects shouldn’t be shot, not because they are white or fellow police officers, but because of a little thing called due process, and the need to restrain law enforcement from becoming judge, jury and executioner. Unfortunately, the humanity and restraint shown in these incidents is mostly extended to those lacking a certain degree of pigmentation. Our perceptions of danger and deviance skew the treatment meted out to folks all throughout the various stages of the criminal justice system.

It’s why Santee school shooter, Andy Williams could be taken alive, despite having a loaded gun pointed at officers when he was abducted, while 14-year old Aquan Salmon had to be shot dead for running away from police in Hartford, Connecticut.

It’s why Bernhard Goetz could be viewed not as a dangerous, off-balance predator, but rather as a real-life Charles Bronson-type character, gunning down black men for the safety of all white Americans.

It’s why a recent study at Washington University in St. Louis found that the mere presence of dark skin increases the probability that an object (perhaps in the person’s hand) will be misperceived as a weapon.

It’s why white drug offenders in New York City — though they make up the majority of drug users there — are less than ten percent of the persons locked down for a drug offense, and instead are taking nearly three-quarters of the treatment facility beds.

And still, white Americans wonder why their black and brown counterparts question the fundamental fairness of our criminal justice system? But why ask why? The answers become plainer every day. They are as blatant as the morning headlines. And it takes a special kind of color-blindness not to notice them.

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