Earlier this week, David French wrote a lengthy essay criticizing the police shooting of Botham Shem Jean in Texas. It was a tragic event which never should have happened and many questions have been raised about the officer who killed him and how the situation came to such a conclusion. (The officer has now been arrested and charged in the incident.) After French published his article, however, he was quickly reminded of how you can never write about police shootings without immediately drawing attacks from one side or the other, and sometimes from both.
That led the author to do a follow-up which I would highly recommend to everyone, explaining why he changed the way he writes about police shootings. After touching on his own history of covering police shootings, here’s part of the conclusion French draws.
To put it bluntly, when I look back at my older writings, I see them as contributing more to a particular partisan narrative than to a tough, clear-eyed search for truth.
So I’ve set out to rectify that imbalance. A person can walk and chew gum at the same time. One can rightly condemn riots and radicalism while also noting that each time a bad cop walks free it damages the fabric of trust between the government and its citizens. One can rightly say that it’s not “open season” on black men — or that any given inflammatory allegation has been thoroughly debunked — while also noting that the same DOJ that refuted “hands up, don’t shoot” also found evidence of systematic police misconduct in Ferguson.
Most cops do what’s right. Many cops are extraordinarily brave. But I also think the best evidence indicates that race is more of a factor in modern policing than I wanted to believe. I also think a pro-police bias has infected our criminal-justice system — including the way juries decide cases — and that pro-police bias has helped bad cops walk free.
For someone like me, this is a difficult article to read, but a necessary one. Much like French, I’ve long been in what can reasonably be described as the Blue Lives Matter club. I’ve tried to take care to cover actual cases of rogue cops who engage in evil deeds (the shooting of Walter Scott was among the worst) or even cases of unintended but still unforgivable errors. (It’s beginning to look like the Botham Shem Jean shooting may fall into that category, but we still need to learn more about what took place.) But for the most part, I’ve always treated such incidents as part of a minuscule number of bad apples in a massively large barrel.
For the most part, I still do. Much of that is just baked into the cake for me, though with time I’ve come to recognize where such default positions came from. The fact is, I’m a white guy (well… close enough to it anyway) who grew up in a rural area where we idolized the police, firemen and the military. We had, and still have cops in our family, some who took up that occupation after serving in the armed forces. The cops were the good guys. When we played cops and robbers as kids, everyone wanted to be the cops.
And in the vast majority of circumstances, the cops still are the good guys. But there are also some systemic issues in various police forces, particularly in the larger cities, where there remains room for improvement. And yes, there are still random sociopaths who make it through the screening process and wind up with a badge, along with others who simply aren’t suited for police work. Those are unfortunate facts of life.
But why is it so hard to talk about these things? Because it feels as if everyone engaged in the debate on both sides is backed so far into their corners that each aspect of the discussion can be taken as an immediate cause for offense. I do run across individuals on social media regularly who are so supportive of the police that they seem to be able to find an excuse for nearly any shooting, including that of Walter Scott. Conversely, there are those who raise the cry of “killer cops” every time a person of color is shot, even if they were clearly drawing a weapon or even opening fire on the officers.
And we should be clear about one thing here: this has unfortunately devolved into a debate about racism to the point that race can’t be removed from larger issues of proper law enforcement procedures. You generally don’t hear nearly as much of an outcry on the rare occasions when a black cop shoots a minority suspect. And there won’t be a headline anywhere outside the local newspaper when a white cop shoots a white suspect. (Which happens considerably more often than the number of black suspects who are shot, though not when looked at on a per capita basis.)
French has brought up the fact that the greater number of per capita lethal force encounters for black suspects might be at least partially explained by the fact that black males are statistically more likely to wind up engaging in a violent crime than white males. This is not because of the color of their skin or some inherent, genetic flaw, but simply because people who grow up in economically disadvantageous conditions, surrounded by poverty and crime, are more likely to fall into such behavior. And unfortunately, that means the scales tip disproportionately toward minorities in our larger cities. But if you attempt to bring up such a point in any normal conversation you will still be labeled a racist faster than a dropped martini glass will shatter.
There are more examples, but the fact is that the entire subject is fraught with tension. We do have very real problems in some police units (the Gun Trace Task Force in Baltimore is one of the more recent examples) and they need to be addressed. But this debate isn’t going to become any easier nor any more civil from what I can see. It’s boiled down into a toxic stew and it’s going to be very difficult – if not impossible – to walk back from that.