The story, in general outline, has been so oft repeated it’s easy to dismiss or overlook: Unarmed black teenager shot and killed by police officer. The facts and images in this particular case make it particularly hard to ignore –the sudden, shocking death of a young, fresh-faced, straight-A student; the video evidence that forced a recantation of the account initially provided by the officer at fault; the telling admission that the shooting does not meet the “core values” of the department involved. The response, for once, was appropriately swift and bracing, the officer fired, his actions disavowed and charges of homicide filed. But is it enough?
I’ve come to believe that focusing solely on the racial injustice of these stories is counterproductive. While similar incidents with white (or other, non-black) victims are much more rare, they do happen, and are no less horrible for being less racially polarized. The plain fact of the matter is this: There are many places around the world where the police are little more than a deputized army of bullies and thugs, allotted weapons and a measure of power in exchange for serving and protecting the rights, property and interests of the rich and the powerful, and solely the rich and the powerful. America is not one of those places. It does not match our “core values” that possession of a badge should serve as license to summarily murder anyone’s beloved child, regardless of that child’s race, income, or other personal traits.
But core values are not merely the values we wish we have, or believe we have. Your core values are the ones you preach, teach and live. They need to be written both on your hearts and on your walls. If you haven’t established processes and practices around maintaining them, they aren’t your institutional values in any real and valid sense. Your word may be your bond, but your record is you. What the last several years have taught anyone who is paying attention is that incidents like this happen all across the nation, they happen frequently (if not always to this level of severity), and they have likely always happened (absent only the modern abundance of video evidence to correct the narrative). That is our record, and it speaks for itself. If this truly does not match our core values, then our processes and practices MUST change in response. Carrying a weapon, and being authorized in the legitimate use of lethal force is a grave and weighty responsibility. If people are not being specifically trained to exercise that responsibility both equitably, and as a last resort, and our record indicates they are NOT, then neither any amount of contrition nor of outrage is an adequate substitute.
This is not to minimize the fact that police do a difficult and often dangerous job, and that they do it on behalf of the community. But they are adults who have chosen to be in harm’s way: The burden falls on them to assess the situation and respond appropriately, not on the unarmed civilian children who happen to cross their paths. Respect must be earned. Trust must be earned. Presumption of innocence, in a situation where one person is dead and the other is alive, must be earned. If the police, as a whole, have lost the trust, respect, and presumption of innocence of the black community, or of the community at large, then it is not the job of that community to bridge the gap. It is the necessary job of every police department in this nation, at this point in history, to rebuild the trust of the community by taking concrete and significant steps to make things better. We’ll know they have accomplished it when the deaths stop happening.