I’m afraid of the police. And I’m neither black nor male.
Watch this mp4 video, courtesy of the Sacramento District Attorney’s office, and you’ll see why. Not because of what it shows in Sacramento, but because of what it reveals about law enforcement and public safety nationwide.
The drama unfolds in a suburban neighborhood at night. We’re looking down, with night vision, on a labyrinth of dark rooftops, driveways, and backyards. In white relief, a figure moves among these obstacles. He runs across a yard. He jumps a fence. He pauses at the window of an SUV. Suddenly another figure appears, advancing rapidly toward the first with arms extended, weapon pointed. He’s joined by a third figure. Figure Two rounds the corner of a house and shoots at Figure One, retreats, then fires again. Figure One falls to the ground, face down. Figures Two and Three emerge and fire repeatedly at his motionless body.
It reminds me of that night-vision video we all saw back in 2003, of the bombing of Baghdad. “Shock-and-awe” surprise attacks, you’ll recall, were going to win us the War on Terror. That would seem to be our strategy for winning the War on Crime, too: deploy overwhelming lethal force no matter what the situation.
The situation, in Sacramento, was that a 22-year-old father of two had been punching in car windows. The neighbor who called 911 reported as much. Yet the police saw fit to dispatch not only two officers but also a helicopter team equipped with military-grade surveillance and GPS tracking equipment— ensuring that the boots on the ground could hunt down their quarry with Terminator-like efficiency. The officers, as the body-cam video makes clear, do not announce themselves to the suspect. They do not ask any questions. They empty their weapons before they can even see him, let alone detect a gun in his hand.
I’m not condemning the officers. In the body-cam video you can hear, you can feel their fear—the fear that comes from not knowing who you’re up against in the dark, and what that person may be carrying. The officers opened fire, rather than risk being fired at. You and I might have done the same.
I’m condemning, rather, the culture of warfare that makes every police encounter a situation that warrants lethal force; a culture that uses violent crime to justify its growth even though violent crime (as well as property crime) has plummeted nationwide. In my suburban town of Pleasantville, NY, for example, police carry M-16 assault rifles in addition to pistols, tasers, and nightsticks. “I fear for my safety in this community,” one officer explained to my husband, who questioned why the officer’s first response to an approaching member of the community was to put a hand on his gun.
I fear for my safety, too. I fear for my loved ones. Not because of “criminal elements,” but because of the forces we’ve assembled to protect us from them. We’ve armed our police like soldiers. We’ve authorized them to kill whenever they feel in danger. We do not insist they distinguish between vandalism and armed robbery, between glass-breakers and mass shooters.
And now, with so much blood shed, we cannot expect them to de-escalate. We’re embroiled in yet another hugely costly war that has no end. Right in our backyards.