After a recent article I wrote 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 angry e-mails from folks proclaiming that I just didn't know how difficult it was to be a police officer. They insisted I shouldn't be so quick to judge cops who shoot criminal suspects. Hesitation in the face of danger could cost an officer his or her life, not to mention the lives of innocent bystanders. When a criminal brandishes a weapon (or even when he doesn't but is thought to have one), the police have little choice but to shoot, said my detractors -- no exceptions.
Yeah, well, tell that to the Nashville 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 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 must be an officer himself.
Recently, 13-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 bullets 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 hostage for four hours -- all this just down the road from an elementary school.
Now imagine that this overwrought, bullet-spraying 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 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 and 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 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 head for trying to back up their cars and escape arrest. And why? Because their vehicles were seen as threats to the officers' lives.
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 the state of Florida.
With the convictions of Lionel Tate and Nathaniel Brazill for murder (both black, both just into their teen years, 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 men, who apparently are never too thin or too weak for a 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 or to hold fire in the case of Mark 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. 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 are 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. A recent study at Washington University in St. Louis found that the mere presence of dark skin increases the probability that an object in the subject's hand will be misperceived as a weapon.
In New York City white drug offenders, though they make up the majority of drug users there, make up less than 10 percent of the persons locked down for a drug offense and utilize 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 more and more plain every day. They are as blatant as the daily headlines. And it takes a special kind of color-blindness not to notice them.
Tim Wise is a Nashville-based writer and activist. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.