It is tempting to look at the problem of police brutality and try to summarize it into a problem we have the tools to repair. Then you read a quote like this one, about Tamir Rice.
“Tamir Rice is in the wrong,” he said. “He’s menacing. He’s 5-feet-7, 191 pounds. He wasn’t that little kid you’re seeing in pictures. He’s a 12-year-old in an adult body. Tamir looks to his left and sees a police car. He puts his gun in his waistband. Those people — 99 percent of the time those people run away from us. We don’t want him running into the rec center. That could be a whole other set of really bad events. They’re trying to flush him into the field. Frank [the driver] is expecting the kid to run. The circumstances are so fluid and unique.
“The guy with the gun is not running. He’s walking toward us. He’s squaring off with Cleveland police and he has a gun. Loehmann is thinking, ‘Oh my God, he’s pulling it out of his waistband.’”
— Cleveland Police Patrolman’s Association President Steve Loomis, as reported in Politico Magazine.
Even a mildly attentive reading of Loomis’s language and reasoning is both illuminating and alarming. Without the carefully tailored language of the written official statement, the constructive seams in the logic of the police officer begin to show. Far from admitting culpability in Rice’s death, Loomis neatly dismisses even the idea that this was just a tragic and fatal misunderstanding. Tamir Rice, instead, is guilty in the crime of his own death. Loomis denies Tamir the innocence of childhood because Tamir had the wrong body to be considered a child. In America, I am beginning to realize, there are no black children, but black bodies of different sizes and threat levels, latent or active, primal and overgrown. Tamir lived in an indicted, criminal body, and it is for this reason that he deserved to die.
It is this inherent criminality of the black body that provides the bedrock upon which Loomis’s logic rests, and it is the assumption of guilt that drives his interpretation of Tamir’s actions. This is why the only explanation Loomis can find for Tamir casually walking towards the police car is that he wanted to gun down police officers. The other explanation, not even considered plausible enough to be explicitly dismissed, is that a 12-year-old boy sitting at a park bench would approach a police car because he believed the lie that the innocent have nothing to fear from the police. He believed the lie that the police were there to protect him, too. Loomis is old enough to know that this is a lie, and this is why he finds nothing wrong with Tamir’s death. There is no fog of apathy to be burned away, no ignorance to be replaced.
If the core of the problem is not ignorance or apathy, but rather a political and justice system that is indifferent to black humanity, then the solution would seem to be simple. Elect leaders with an affinity with and stake in the communities which they police and govern. But Police Chief Calvin Williams and Mayor Frank Jackson are both black men who were raised in Cleveland, and they both reject the idea that racism, systemic or otherwise, is a problem in Cleveland’s police department. Indeed, they do not believe there are systematic problems at all, despite the Department of Justice’s report.
Loomis and Williams find common ground when they insist the DOJ is wrong to describe the police relationship with the community as broken. Both men reject any suggestion of racism on the force, even after I told them about off-the-record conversations with officers of color who insist otherwise.
“A lot of officers have my cell,” Williams said. “They know how to reach me. They don’t tell me someone’s racist.”
Williams’s statement is as illustrative as it is painfully ironic. If nobody is willing to identify the racists in the police department, and that the systems in place within the police department itself are unable to filter them out, then the problem is not a few aberrations and an adversarial media. The problem is systemic racism in the police department, and Williams himself has unwittingly provided evidence of it. The willful blindness of Williams and Jackson does not bode well for the idea that electing black leaders will lead to political structures that value black people.
Meanwhile, the response of the rank and file to retraining programs instituted in response to Eric Garner’s death in New York are not encouraging:
About 80 percent of cops retrained after Eric Garner’s death called the three-day Police Academy program a “waste of time,” and many fell asleep in their seats, says a high-ranking NYPD official.
A day after The Post revealed that a goofball department bigwig wanted to arm officers with breath mints as part of sweeping reforms, a disgusted member of the brass revealed that much more is wrong with the program.
The veteran boss said that the $35 million “smart policing” primer is a flop, and that eight out of every 10 cops give it negative reviews when they finish the training.
With scintillating results like these, we are certain it’s only a matter of time before innovative retraining programs reduce police brutality to curiously archaic phrase our grandchildren will have to Google to be certain of the meaning of, like “collect call” or “the measles.”