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The Best Of Intentions

March 9, 2015

I’ve had a surprising large number of conversations with my town’s Police Chief lately. Large being a relative number, since I’ve gone most of my life without talking to any police in various towns in which I’ve lived. So three. That’s large for me.

This is him at our March for Justice in December. He came. He marched. He listened and has continued to do so.

Rochester Police chief

I believe him to be a sincere person. I believe that all of the conversations he has had with members of the racial justice group in my town, Rochester for Justice check us out on Facebook,  are genuine.

I also believe that as a white person, he simply doesn’t have to think about police interactions with the public in the way that a Person of Color or a Black person (they are not the same) does.

In one of the conversations he and I have had, he made an interesting and edifying point which I’m going to paraphrase for you. In essence he pointed out that most people think of incidents of police violence as a one plus one equation wherein the only elements are the officer and the victim of violence. However, in reality there are three elements; the person who calls the officer, the officer and the victim of violence.

Keep this equation in mind. Person who called = C, Officer = O, and Victim of Violence =V

C + O = V in the event that violence takes place. Because let’s be honest, here in Rochester, we generally don’t get to the kind of V that places like Ferguson, MO does.

Got it?

Good.

With that in mind please recall that Trayvon Martin was killed by a neighborhood watchman who has gone on to be arrested for a violent act every year since he killed an 18-year-old boy.

Eric Garner was killed by police who were called because of a fight, a fight which Eric Garner helped defuse.

Mike Brown was killed for jaywalking.

Tamir Rice was killed for playing with a toy because the 911 caller identified the 12-year-old boy as “a guy with a pistol.”

John Crawford was killed for attempting to buy a toy rifle.

Darrien Hunt was killed for dressing up as a anime character and carrying a toy sword.

I want to add one or two more things for you to keep in your minds.

First, that black children, especially boys, are seen as more criminal and older overall by society at large. And let’s not forget that police officers are members of society.

And second, that traditional diversity training is somewhat less effective than many of us would like to believe.

Do you have all of that?

A sincere and involved police chief who understands that C + O = V dilemma, a society that looks at its black citizens as more dangerous simply due to their skin color, and the necessity of long term training to overcome ingrained biases?

All of it?

Cool.

Do you remember a couple of paragraphs ago when I pointed out that despite the fact that our police chief is sincere and involved he’s also white and as such, doesn’t have to think about certain things in the way that black people and other POC do?

Last week my local news did a lovely story about our police department expanding a year old program which, after one whole hour of training, empowers local dog walkers to catch and report suspicious activity to the police.

In other words, the Rochester, MN police department is asking its citizens to identify suspicious behavior and suspicious persons with all of one hour of training.

C + O = V

People who live in our society and are therefor subject to the biases built into our society are going to determine which of their neighbors is safe or acceptable in a space or what behavior is acceptable within a space.

C + O = V

And if they don’t find a person or a behavior acceptable they are going to call in the first part of that equation.

Not only does this program exist but it is being expanded. The training isn’t being expanded at all, just the number of training sessions available to the public so as to empower a larger segment.

Rockwell today

In case I haven’t been clear throughout, this scares me. My very first thought when I read this was, “someone is going to get killed.” Because I’m black and that’s the kind of thing I have to think about as a survival skill.

Privilege is that ability to not think about things that way because you don’t have to.

Because C + O can lead to V, especially if, as in the Tamir Rice case, the person is described as just “a guy,” and not a kid. Or, as in the Trayvon Martin case, the person doing the deciding has a serious issue with violence and the desire to use it. Or as in John Crawford’s case someone thought it would be amusing to make a prank call. Or, as in the Darrien Hunt case, someone thought a man carrying a toy sword was dangerous. In almost all of these cases, someone called the police because they saw a black person and reacted with fear. They saw a black person and assumed malicious intent. They saw a black person in a certain space or acting in a way that most people who aren’t black can safely act and they decided that person was “suspicious.”

Those calls happened and people died.

So I have to ask the very sincere and involved police chief and the city council and the mayor and the citizens of Rochester, MN, why are we encouraging this? Why are we inviting the kind of tragedy that other communities have suffered recently? Why are we, as a community, looking to people with only one hour of training and asking them to look at their fellow citizens in a fair, rational, unbiased way to determine whether their behavior or presence is acceptable or if it is enough to become the first part of a potentially deadly equation?

PoliceBrutality

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