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The Police and the Black Community

July 11, 2016

Since I am neither black nor a police officer my perspectives are limited. Perhaps I should say nothing on this subject. But as a pastor of a congregation that is racially integrating, and as a person who lives in a mostly black community, I feel I must address this wound that has opened up again in such a tragic way this past week.

Last week two videos went viral, each showing the death of black men shot by police. In one video, Alton Sterling appears to be subdued by two officers, but is then shot multiple times. A gun is later removed from his front pocket. In the other video, as Philando Castile is dying, his girlfriend narrates how he was pulled over for a broken tail light, told the officer he possessed a gun and had a permit to carry the gun, but was then shot multiple times as he reached for his wallet to get out his license. In each video a black man was shot to death who did not appear to be posing a deadly threat.

During nationwide protests of these shootings, an angry black man, who was an Afghanistan veteran, shot and killed five police officers in Dallas, and wounded several others. Some have suggested that the Black Lives Matter movement is to blame for inflaming hatred of police.

But we do not need to be against the protesters in order to be for the police, mourning their loss and appreciating the difficulty of their task to protect and serve. And we do not need to be against the police to be for the protesters, calling for better training of police officers that roots out a possible bias against back men and which does a better job of de-escalating violence. This past week we have seen many images of protesters in Dallas embracing and crying with the police. Both sides are against murder; both sides want to see a society without violence; both sides want good policing and safe communities.

The two videos from the past week are clearly upsetting, but do they in fact prove that the officers were not justified in the shootings? We cannot see all that we need to see in these videos, and we should not rush to final judgments until full investigations are completed.

Nevertheless, our society needs to answer a crucial question: Is there a bias against black men by many police that leads to their more frequent shooting and death? Here are some pertinent facts based on detailed studies and analyses reported recently by the Washington Post: In 2015, 40% of unarmed men shot and killed by police were black, even though black men make up only 6% of the population. Unarmed blacks are 5 times as likely to be shot by police as unarmed whites. Even in cases in which the persons shot were armed, careful analysis reveals, according to the Post, that “black Americans who are fatally shot by the police are, in fact, less likely to be posing an imminent lethal threat to the officers at the moment they are killed than white Americans fatally shot by police.”

Eight years ago when the citizens of the Untied States elected the first African American president, some wondered if perhaps we were becoming a “post-racial” society–a society where race truly does not matter. But the prevalence of video cameras has recently allowed white Americans to see something that black Americans have long claimed: that black men are harassed, arrested, or even killed by police (and others!) in situations where a white person would be far less likely to face those consequences. I have become convinced that Black Lives Matter is pointing out something the white community has been slow to see: overall we do not treat black lives with the same value we treat white lives. One does not have to support all of the tactics used by Black Lives Matter (I don’t) in order to affirm this fundamental insight.

The problem is not just with the police, it is with all of us, all of society. We have all–white and black–been warped by the pernicious presence of racism that has run through American society for several hundred years. To change it we first need to see it and acknowledge it.

We also need to appreciate and value the police, treating them with dignity and respect. In fact, this has been happening. Despite what seems to be a wave of anti-police sentiment, police are safer today than they have been in decades. The number of police that have been shot at or killed has dropped dramatically over the course of the last thirty years.

One can care about and respect the police, and at the same time protest that further improvements are needed. The police cannot do their job effectively without the trust of the community, and to gain the trust of the community the police will have to listen compassionately and resolve complaints rather than react with defensiveness. Many complaints and accusations against the police are unjustified, but they must all be treated seriously. There is no other way to build mutual trust. And this is happening. The police departments of today are doing their jobs better now than they were ten years ago; and I believe they will be doing an even better job tomorrow. Let’s work together.

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