Editorial Dec. 8: Make a stand against the ‘police vs. minorities’ fear cycle


You’re walking down the sidewalk of in an unfamiliar neighborhood when you see a man approaching you. You turn to avoid him, but he also alters his course, clearly intending to meet up with you. As he gets closer, panic rises in your mind. You’ve heard stories about people like him, what “they” have done: violent, frightening things.

But who, exactly, inspires this fear in you? A young black or brown man in a hooded sweatshirt, or a white police officer carrying a badge and gun?

It’s all in where you’re standing.

It’s uncertain how Michael Brown stood in Ferguson, Missouri – with his hands up in surrender or moving with intent to attack officer Darren Wilson. Witness accounts released from the grand jury hearing differ wildly, but the autopsy report at least confirms Brown faced Wilson as he died.

A bystander’s video clearly shows Eric Garner standing his ground against the commands from plainclothes NYPD officers, non-compliant but non-aggressive. Garner was standing his ground until officer Daniel Pantaleo attempted to restrain him from behind with a chokehold maneuver too close to which the NYPD has banned its officers from using since 1993. Garner’s autopsy detailed the compression of his neck and chest as causes of his death.

If these deaths don’t incite a response in you because they’re not close enough to home, consider the Nov. 10 incident Santa Rosa Junior College’s Black Student Union members encountered: standing outside a Rohnert Park bowling alley when confronted by a racial hatred so vicious they felt it was almost from another time and place — and further compounded by responding officers’ actions of indifference and hostility when the BSU students tried to make their case.

The relationship between America’s minority communities and the police has always stood on shaky ground, but the ever-eroding lack of trust between them has growing lethal consequences.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ most recent Arrest-Related Deaths report, about six in 10 arrest-related deaths from 2003-2009 were considered homicide by law enforcement, and that number may be higher. On its first page, the ARD report admits “arrest-related deaths are under-reported” and that the BJS makes no attempt to estimate for non-responding jurisdictions.

Of the nearly 5,000 deaths included, 58.4 percent of the homicides were minorities, with blacks making up the largest portion at 31.7 percent of all reported arrest-related homicides.

The fear cycle will perpetuate if men like Brown and Garner are celebrated as martyrs instead of victims. Martyrs sacrifice themselves standing up for a cause they believe in. Victims are killed by an outside force, and unfortunately, Brown and Garner are victims of a nationwide force of ill-equipped and unprepared police. While the modern officer has an arsenal of weapons and the training to use them, he lacks the proper psychological training to earn and maintain the trust of the people he’s meant to serve and protect.

Resigning Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. promised Dec. 1 to announce “updated Justice Department guidance” to eliminate racial profiling by federal law enforcement.  Guidelines help in the short term, but laws make lasting change. An “End Racial Profiling” bill has been put forward at every Congress since the beginning of the Bush administration to no effect.
Congress can’t afford to stand on the sidelines anymore; it needs to make this bill its top priority.

That cycle also revolves around the manner the justice system determines fault in officer-related homicides — but just as Brown and Garner are not martyrs, neither should Wilson nor Pantaleo become scapegoats in attempt to relieve tension.

Santa Rosa felt that tension in the wake of Andy Lopez’s death when the district attorney’s decision not to prosecute Deputy Erick Gelhaus strained the trust between law enforcement and the Latino community. But instead of brushing aside these concerns, Sonoma County created a task force that’s been working for the past year on ways to implement an independent civilian review body. This method could make all the difference in growing the trust between minorities and police, and stand as a model for all communities impacted by these tragedies.