Race and law enforcement: A new escalation

The killing of Dallas police officers by sniper fire marks a new escalation of race wars here in America and signals a higher level of frustration with the unabated killing of blacks by police under questionable circumstances.  It is unimaginable anywhere else but in this country how a simple traffic stop for a broken tail light can lead to the death of the driver, in plain sight of a woman passenger, merely inches away.

What is it about blacks that automatically puts white police officers on edge, ready to draw their weapon and shoot?  I do not necessarily like simplistic and reductionist answers, as there is perhaps a more complex context to all these.  But these incidents over the last year or so, suggest a common thread.

There is an almost instinctual presumption, perhaps underscored through training in the academy and socialization at locker rooms, that any confrontation with a black person, is dangerous, and life threatening even if it is only a traffic stop.  Add to this the equally recent shooting death of a black man, already pinned down by the officers, shot at point blank range.  The behavior here also suggests that this black man despite being already physically constrained, is extremely dangerous, and the only way to prevent harm to the officers, is to shoot him dead.

The presumptions that lie behind the way these police officers manage these “confrontations” are racist.  The quick readiness of these officers to escalate the confrontation into lethal violence suggests an attitude that Blacks are subhuman. To these officers, their lives don’t really matter as much: it’s not murder.

Under our constitution, people have a right to life.  This is a simple civics lesson that every law enforcement personnel knows.  The fact that it appears to be constantly ignored, suggests, not a lack of knowledge, but a racist belief that blacks are subhuman, not entitled to this most fundamental of human rights, the right to life. Black Americans are human, and are entitled to the right to life.  This is the moral and political message that the Black Lives Matter movement is trying to underscore.  Black lives matter, is also expressed in Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream, that one day we will be a nation where folks “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by content of their character.”

But what is one to do if those who are charged with keeping the peace, and enforcing the law, are quick to judge by the color of one’s skin, with very lethal results?

The death of five Dallas police officers by sniper fire indicates that for some individuals, we are at a stage where it is necessary to respond to violence with violence, to crime with crime.  The sniper probably felt so, even if it meant making the ultimate sacrifice.  To him, this was a heroic act, but the only way to obtain justice.   I certainly do not wish to condone this, but I also feel that the slogan, Black Lives Matter, goes to the core of the issue.  Law enforcement has to respect the right to life of every citizen, especially, Black Americans.

The recognition that the right to life is fundamental and its protection a primary responsibility of civil society is a key provision of the social contract that binds communities and societies together.  When this contract is broken, or unenforced by the very agents of the State charged with enforcing it, where does one turn to for redress and justice? The ultimate solution, encoded in the constitution, is the right to bear arms.  Since the Supreme Court thinks that this is an “individual right” not just a privilege of militias.  By this same logic, individuals can bear arms against those who break the social contract, regarding the right to life.

As I write this, news has broken that the Los Angeles Police Commission released its findings on a police shooting resulting in the death of a black woman, Redel Jones.  The commission found the shooting justified, because the officer could reasonably believe that Jones’s “actions while armed with a knife presented an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury.”  At bottom, this is the right of self-defense; a rather common rationale in police-involved shootings.

The right to self-defense, certainly over rides the right to life, but not every aggressive action, justifies taking a life.  And any claim by a law enforcement agent involved in a police shooting that the actions of the victim “presented an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury” must be subjected to the most critical scrutiny, and the officers themselves held to a higher standard.

Law enforcement personnel are among the most heavily armed people that can freely mingle with the civilian population. They walk around with batons, mace, stun guns, and handguns, plus they wear body armour, and receive training in the martial arts.  They are much more heavily armed and protected than ordinary citizens.  They have the means and the training to rapidly escalate the use of force to lethal levels, but just as critical, it is their job to professionally and effectively manage a confrontational situation, without the undue use of force.

They have to be held to a higher standard when it comes to the right to self-defense; they are lethal weapons walking in plain sight among citizens.

Enrique de la Cruz
Enrique de la Cruz

*** Enrique B. dela Cruz, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus at the California State University-Northridge. He received his Ph.D. in Philosophy (Mathematical Logic) from UCLA and has written on Asian Americans, Filipino-Americans and Philippine-U.S. relations.  You can e-mail him at enrique.dela.cruz@csun.edu

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