Over the weekend I read a brief article from E.J. Montini at the Arizona Republic, simply asking the questions presented to him by a police officer in regards to a police shooting in Rochester, NY. Here’s a quick summary of the incident referenced:
“Police Officer Daryl Pierson, who is white, was shot and killed during a foot pursuit. The suspect is a black man named Thomas Johnson III., who had recently been released from prison. He has a long and undistinguished rap sheet.
The suspect was wounded by Pierson’s partner during an exchange of gunfire. A bystander also suffered a leg wound.
Officer Pierson was a veteran of the Army National Guard who had served in Afghanistan. He had been a member of the Rochester Police Department for eight years. He was married and the father of two children, a 4-year-old boy named Christian and 3-month-old Charity.”
Another tragedy in the line of duty, we’ve already had several here in Phoenix in recent times as well. It’s always reported locally, as anytime someone in a community is killed protecting that community, it’s big, and sad, local news. Of course if that tragedy is tinged with scandal, then it tends to boil over into national news and a media circus ensues, that’s how the modern mass media world works, for worse or worse.
Now here are the questions as asked by the officer who wrote to E.J. Montini, essentially asking why there was no Ferguson-like uproar over the incident:
“No media coverage other than locally (in Rochester), but no national coverage… Also no Al Sharptons showing up to get the citizens up in arms either for or against the shooter or the officer, no rioting, looting or destruction of businesses.
What is the difference? Was it that the officer was doing his job and he should have expected that, or was it that the suspect wasn’t killed by the police?
Where is the moral compass of our citizenry? … In this case we haven’t seen any outrage other than by those of us who have worn the badge and have seen and experienced the assaults on us as we do our job to protect the citizens against the criminals of this world who would do us all harm.”
First, there was no scandal factor. Police put themselves on the line every single day, something we should be proud, respectful and at times even in awe of, because as I’ve noted before, there are few things, if any, more noble than a good officer of the law. Any time a police officer is chasing down a criminal, his/her life is at risk – that’s the nature of the job. Every single officer (and his/her family and friends) is all too well aware of the terrible risk involved at times in serving and protecting the majority of the good citizens in this country, from the small contingent of bad ones. That’s the reality we live in. It’s a sad, heartbreaking local tragedy every time it happens, and the city affected feels it each time.
It becomes a national headline, however, when the scandal kicks in. For example, if a victim is unarmed when killed, or if a victim is left dead on the street for 4 hours… then you’re likely going to garner more media attention. Those are red flags even before race is factored into the equation. I’ve been quiet on Ferguson for weeks here for the most part, waiting to get as much information as possible.
But make no mistake, moving past the aforementioned red flags, in the case of Ferguson, racial profiling exists. Unfortunately that shouldn’t be a news flash, as it exists in other parts of America as well. Ferguson is so skewed in some statistics, however, that it’s borderline ridiculous, which probably made it just a matter of time before something boiled over. Let me give you a few numbers, referencing 2013 data, so we can get a clearer picture of where some of the tension likely arose.
Even though 67% of Ferguson is black, 86% of the Ferguson Police Department stops were of black people, and a whopping 92% of the searches were of black people. Now those numbers sound pretty skewed as-is, particularly the searches percentage, but there are two other much more troubling numbers. First, the vehicle stop rate for the reason of Equipment was absolutely off the chart. There were 822 Equipment stops, and 750 of them were of black people. Only 62 were of white people. That’s over 91% of all stops, while only 7.5% of those stops were of white people. As I hinted at in my recent post on Racial Profiling, “Equipment” is often code for “I stopped them because I thought they were a minority”.
Now I’m not saying that’s 100% of the time, and of course you need to factor in poverty ratios as well, since faulty equipment on vehicles will tend to exist more in lower income level people who can’t always afford to fix an equipment issue right away. I don’t know the income data In Ferguson, so I won’t speak directly to that, but I will speak to this – police tend to not care a whole lot about “equipment” unless they think they can get something else out of the stop. Unless the offense is egregious (a dangerous issue like brake lights being out), you won’t often see an officer pay much heed, especially if it’s a “nicer” vehicle that has the equipment issue.
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I drove an old beat up Lincoln for a very short time just after college, and back in my home town of Forest Park, Illinois, a police officer pulled me over one day as I turned onto the entry ramp of the expressway (yes, I was literally leaving town, and he still pulled me over). Why? For “equipment”, because part of my tail light was taped (red tape designed for it), and a little bit of the white light was showing through a gap I didn’t realize was there. Very little.
I knew as soon as he pulled me over that the stop was racial profiling, because he thought I was black based on the vehicle and its condition. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to an incident with a police officer, because this wonderful human being actually smacked my car with his flashlight and made the damage worse as he approached my vehicle. He didn’t feel I’d stopped the car in adequate time. I was obviously trying to find a safe place to stop, as anyone who’s been at Harlem Avenue and 290 can tell you is not easy to do, but this crazy guy was borderline ‘roid raging over a little bit of white showing through a tail light. He calmed down, gradually, once he saw I was white. But not before further altercation, as it was the only time I ever raised my voice at an officer (see Racial Profiling for the utmost respect I have for good law officers). It was the second racial profiling incident I witnessed in the same year.
So if you think an officer really cares about a tiny equipment infraction, well chances are extremely high that said officer doesn’t. In most urban areas, much more pressing issues tend to occupy law enforcement’s time, and your one little equipment infraction isn’t one of them. That said, let’s move on to the other important statistic in the Ferguson data… contraband.
For all the skewing towards blacks vs whites on traffic stops, there is one extremely telling statistic that points to the ugliness of racial profiling. The contraband hit rate for whites was 34.04, compared to only 21.71 for blacks. So a white person stopped and searched was significantly more likely in possession of contraband than a black person, yet black people accounted for 92% of searches. Think on that for a minute, and then ask yourself, honestly, if you think there may have been a pre-existing issue between some of the Ferguson Police Department and the citizenry they are paid to protect and serve.
Before I wrap this up, I’d like to pay respect to the officer slain in the line of duty in Rochester, NY. Anytime a police officer is properly doing the noble job of protecting and serving the community, and pays with his/her own life, it’s a tragic, painful loss to that community. It happens too often here in Phoenix even, and it saddens me every time. We’ve lost some really amazing, heroic people who died trying to take hardcore criminals off our streets, and that should never, ever be taken lightly.
As for the question of media coverage on these tragedies, the other important thing to remember is that, when we eventually evolve and move past racism (we will one day), then each of these incidents will be looked at strictly for what they are – crimes. Whether it’s an officer shooting an unarmed man to death, or a criminal shooting an officer, there is a crime involved. In fact, that may be the biggest difference between the two incidents in question here. Everyone acknowledges that the criminal who killed the police officer committed a crime, but does everyone agree that a police officer shooting an unarmed man to death with six bullets is also a crime?
That’s the one issue I think needs serious addressing here, regardless of racial profiling or anything else. How do we hold officers accountable when they commit crimes instead of stopping criminals? My stepfather, who served as a state trooper in both California and Illinois, has mentioned this to me many times over the past two decades since we started discussing it, and I’m not sure if any progress has been made. But it must be made, because we can’t let bad cops pull down the reputation and the community rapport that all the good police work so hard to develop. But we’ll get there. There are several things we can do, and more on that coming soon directly here from Phoenix…