A curious thought experiment has just occurred to me. Bear in mind that this is only a first draft. I am merely thinking out loud, so to speak, and so I am counting on you to catch me in any flawed reasoning or rash conclusions of which I might be guilty.
If police in America really are as racist as we are being told and really do want to murder black people, what is the worst way they could go about it? Does anyone disagree that the worst, most counter-productive method would be to stop a large and singularly popular black man in a very public place, call for back-up to insure that other possibly unfamiliar officers arrive to witness the killing, shackle that man hand and foot, throw him down on the pavement of a well-travelled street, and then with cameras rolling place a knee on his neck and slowly choke him to death as he begs for air in front of a growing crowd of other black people?
Conversely, what would be the “best” (shrewdest or most effective) way for racist police to murder black people? Does anyone disagree that the most effective method would be to follow a lone black person into a dark alley late at night, shoot him in the back of the head with a silenced and unregistered weapon, stroll casually back to the empty street, slip quietly into an unmarked car and then calmly light a cigarette and drive off?
I see two possible conclusions to the dilemma this experiment poses. But first, if you are in doubt about the answer to either of those hypothetical questions we just reviewed then you fall into that special category of proof that we need smarter Americans. But ask yourself this. If you were a racist cop, wouldn’t you choose that second option? And yet they never do!
Conclusion # 1. The first possible conclusion is that racist, murderous police in America are also the stupidest criminals in the world, because every time they murder a black person they do it in the clumsiest, most conspicuous and counter-productive way–a way that virtually guarantees they will be caught and exposed on national television.
Conclusion # 2. The second possible conclusion is that the unjust killing of Blacks by police in America is not a product of racist intent or premeditation, but of poor judgment, poor training, poor tactics or technique, sadistic personality disorder, a violent character unsuitable for the occupation, anger or over-reaction in a stressful situation, or plain stupidity–all of the various human weaknesses that account for bad mistakes and poor performance in every occupation.
Sometimes in analyzing an emotionally charged question like this it helps to start from an absurd extreme and work backwards. A very large number of people kill themselves each year in accidents involving carelessness or bad judgment. For the lamest and most hapless of these we provide Darwin Awards. Some of those people are black. Are we to believe that those black people took their own lives because they are racist against themselves? Of course not! They simply made fatal mistakes. For every unarmed black person killed by police each year scores of people are killed by co-workers in industrial accidents. Do we assume murder? Or do we assume carelessness, negligence, or some other failing that does not include lethal intent?
What about hospitals and doctors? They kill vast numbers of people each year. In fact medical errors are the third leading cause of death in America, and according to a study from Johns Hopkins more than 250,000 people die each year from such mistakes. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160504085309.htm Many of these victims –probably a disproportionate number–are black. After all, Blacks have higher levels of many life threatening diseases like obesity, diabetes and heart disease. So it follows that they provide doctors a disproportionate opportunity to kill them. Are these racially motivated killings? “The researchers caution that most of medical errors aren’t due to inherently bad doctors, and that reporting these errors shouldn’t be addressed by punishment or legal action.” Sometimes the hospitals or doctors are sued for malpractice. But how often are they accused of murder? When a black patient dies in the care of a white doctor, should we all riot in the streets?
The case of George Floyd is particularly egregious, and I will not attempt to play defense attorney on behalf of those police who took his life. Beyond that there clearly have been other cases where the deaths of people in police custody—people of all races—have been so flagrantly wrong and unjust as to spark our outrage. Still, as a general rule it seems to me that startlingly few unarmed people die at the hands of police. (I am comparing the 40 or so unarmed Americans of all races and genders killed by police in 2019, according to the Washington Post, to the more than 250,000 killed by doctors and hospitals.)
Some have argued that Black fatalities at the hands of police are disproportionate to the number of Blacks in the population. Viewed uncritically, that is a fact. However black people also have far more interactions with police than white people do. When this is pointed out, those who see malice in the numbers claim that police intentionally seek out Blacks for prosecution. But police most often do not choose the race of their suspects. Most often they engage with suspects because they have received a 911 call identifying the race of a perpetrator. And in our inner cities where most of the crime takes place, more often than not those calls come from Black victims describing black offenders, as was the case with George Floyd.
In order to reduce the number of confrontations between Blacks and police, does anyone believe we should instruct our police to ignore those calls? Because that is exactly what will happen if we “Defund the Police,” as even some Democrat office holders now demand. As a consequence of all this rioting and looting that neglect of black victims will likely occur anyway. The phenomenon is known as “The Baltimore Effect.” https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2018/07/12/baltimore-police-not-noticing-crime-after-freddie-gray-wave-killings-followed/744741002/ If I were to deputize you today, how eager would you be to settle a domestic dispute on a dark street in a housing project in Baltimore?
As an aside, I should point out that even among those “unarmed” individuals killed by police there are many who, according to all the evidence, afforded the involved officers little choice but to pull the trigger. In popular parlance, they chose “death by police” by attempting to physically overpower an officer, wrestle his weapon from him, run him over, or place his life in jeopardy in one of sundry other ways. This is the case with several of those listed in the 2019 numbers complied by the Washington Post (Police Shootings Data Base—2015-2020) and now widely reported. Still, there are some such killings that simply cannot be excused.
Can we agree that murderers in general—even police who commit murder—hope to get away with their crimes? It seems to me that those hideous police killings that arouse so much revulsion in all of us are unusually public and conspicuous. It also seems to me that even the most criminally racist cop would have the sense to murder his black victims in a less obvious and counter-productive way. After all, even the dumbest cop knows that he doesn’t want to be in prison with all those other people he put there, especially if he has a history of race-based mistreatment of suspects.
Based on these considerations, I am inclined to think that most of those unjustifiable police killings are tragic mistakes not unlike the many regrettably lethal medical errors we see from our doctors and hospitals. They likely flow not from racial malice but from those unfortunate frailties we all have as human beings. But if in fact the rare killing of unarmed black people by our police in America actually is racially motivated, then that is one more proof that we really do need to hire smarter police. Because what happened to George Floyd was nearly as stupid as it was reprehensible and depraved.