*Last week I spoke about knowing when to try and make a point about the way law enforcement officers police people of color. This week presented the perfect illustration of what I was saying.
In Texas, some black teenagers were targeted by police after residents called the cops about the unusually high number of youths (we’ll get to the racial aspect of their report in a second) in the neighborhood. When officers arrived on the scene they identified who might be causing the issue and began to try to take control of the situation.
My point last week was that there are two issues in play: first – how to conduct yourself respectfully around law enforcement; second – whether law enforcement is treating you correctly. Several young black people in the video from Texas failed to put themselves in the best position. Multiple people ran from police and failed to follow directions. Hopefully none of them ever gets in a situation in which they need the help of law enforcement to control a situation but can’t because no one wants to follow directions.
That being said, on to issue #2.
There are multiple problems with how these black youths were viewed and treated. First is the fact that the police were ever called. Apparently there is some sort of quota system in that neighborhood because there has been no reason given as to what illegal activity was witnessed that necessitated law enforcement. The teenagers were in the area for a pool/birthday party and I’m sure it was loud but it looked to be the middle of the day and parties are loud. Whoever called the police did so for no apparent reason other than there were too many black youths on their block.
Yes I am drawing a conclusion that may not be merited but it is a reasonable conclusion to make. Consider that if illegal activity were going on, and the police were actually needed, we would have heard about that by now. Consider that police only addressed black teenagers about not following directions when clearly the area contained people of many skin colors (and presumably many races). Unless a better explanation is given, it is fair to say that these police called because of race.
The second problem is how the officers behaved once on the scene. There are multiple instances of people attempting to explain the presence of the black teens in the area – some of these attempts are by young black men in custody who are calm and address the officer as “sir.” Nevertheless the officers are agitated (they just had to run so their adrenaline was probably pumping) and are trying to gain control over an uncontrollable situation. It’s outside, they are clearly outnumbered, and in an unfamiliar location. They are grasping at straws trying to sort out why they were called and take the appropriate action.
But if we look a bit more in depth we see that they came with certain prejudices. Whether because it was explicitly called in as a problem with the amount of black people or whether they assumed as much when they arrived, the officers clearly made it a priority to restrict the movements of the black people they encountered. The officers should take some of the blame for that reaction but I also wouldn’t be surprised if they were explicitly trained to react in just this way when presented with multiple black youths.
Third, because they were so intent on restricting the movement of the black teens they became overzealous. When one young lady refused to follow directions (again not what I would have done or suggested she do) an officer became physically aggressive. Some of the other young black people reacted by approaching the officer who then drew his weapon. The officer has been placed on suspension. If the police had come with the mindset of investigating a possible problem rather than trying to solve (what they considered) a known problem, none of this would have occurred.
I firmly believe that police need to be trained differently if we are to see progress in the area of relations between white law enforcement officers and the non-white populations they police.
But if there is a silver lining to this situation it is this. In the 21st century when everything is recorded, the possibility of these incidents being swept under the rug is gone. So we are that much closer to the people who decide on things (like changing police training) from actually making changes.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.