© Josh Sager – August 2015
Black lives matter.
I start with this simple statement because it needs emphasizing given the devaluation of black life by many police forces in our nation. While police officers have been known to harass people of all demographics and truly “all lives matter,” not all lives are under constant threat from the people who are paid to keep society safe.
According to a count by the Guardian, 547 Americans were killed by the police during the 213 days between January 1, 2015 and July 1, 2015—this amounts to approximately 2.5 killings per day. When you look at a racial breakdown of these victims, black Americans are being killed at over twice the rate of either white or Hispanic Americans. The disproportionate number of African Americans killed by police during this period is made even damning when we consider the fact that only 13.2% of the total US population is African American, and a vast majority of those killed were not armed at the time.
While the police have killed African Americans in a variety of ways (ex. shooting, strangleholds, tasers, etc.), they have developed a disturbingly effective common playbook for minimizing and justifying their actions. This simple set of five strategies has been implemented in numerous cases by a variety of police forces, and appears to be fine-tuned to destroy accountability.
- Block Disclosure
The first step police often take when dealing with a police killing is to conceal evidence—particularly video evidence—for as long as possible. This serves to create a time buffer between the killing and any disclosure that reduces the amount of attention the public pays (they wait out the news cycle). In addition to reducing the public focus, delaying the disclosure of damaging evidence gives the police time to get their stories straight, comb the victim’s life for damaging information, and insulate the DA/IAB from political backlash if they decide not to punish the officer.
For example: the Charleston police are still refusing to release the dashcam footage of Justin Craven, one of their junior officer, shooting an unarmed African American man named Ernest Satterwhite during a May traffic stop—Craven claims that Satterwhite tried to take his gun, despite the fact that Satterwhite’s door was closed and Satterwhite had no history of violence. Those who have seen the video call it “horrible” and say that it was essentially an execution.
This tactic is designed to delay disclosures of damning facts until a shooting is “old news” out of the hope that this time barrier will dull the public outrage. Fortunately, while this tactic was very powerful in past decades, the development of cell phone cameras has limited its effectiveness. It is increasingly hard to conceal videos of police shootings (before the cellphone camera, most videos of shootings were official security footage that only the police had access to).
- Demonize the Victim
After a shooting, police will often search through the lives of their victim to find any possible mitigating factor for their bad actions. They will latch onto any perceived flaw in the victim, even if it is completely irrelevant to the killing. This is aimed at turning public opinion in the police’s favor, while poisoning any eventual jury with the idea that the victim really deserved what he got (essentially, a form of jury nullification).
For example: After the Michael Brown shooting, the police painted Brown as a brutal “demon” who tried to take a poor, innocent police officer’s gun and use it on him, then ran through a hail of bullets to try to kill him with his bare hands when that failed. Sam DuBose was executed by a police officer in an incredibly flawed traffic stop, and the police officer tried to justify it by claiming that DuBose tried to drag him behind his car—unfortunately for the officer, we have his body-cam footage and it shows that he fell backward after shooting DuBose in the head, causing him to step on the gas and crash down the street (he was dead before the car moved).
In particular, those who use this tactic tend to focus on drug use and the physical attributes of the victim. A large black man (or teen) who is killed by police is often tarred as a “thug,” attributed near-superhuman strength, and seen as borderline berserk. This is often accompanied by drug tests which confirm that the victim is part of the 40% of the American public that has smoked pot, and insinuations are made that his “drug use” may have contributed to his aggression.
- Use Media Proxies to Deflect Blame
Unfortunately, the police are not alone in their fight to destroy public accountability when one of their own kills somebody. There are numerous media figures who are all too happy to help deflect blame and push the police narrative. While many of these figures live in the right wing echo chamber, some are considered mainstream and many are very well respected.
For example: After the Sandra Bland “suicide” and the exposure of the nonsensical traffic stop that landed her in jail, Fox News’s Elizabeth Hasselbeck tried to justify the police officer’s hostility by claiming that Bland’s cigarette could have been a weapon. In addition to this embarrassingly stupid example, you need only turn on the TV after a police killing to see endless iterations of the “black on black” crime trope (80% of black victims are killed by other black people, thus focusing on police killings of black people is a distraction).
Media proxies create the illusion of objectivity and allow police talking points to be delivered—virtually verbatim—through a trusted medium.
- Refocus the Media on the Response
After a police shooting, protests can run hot and protesters can do some extremely regrettable things. We have seen numerous examples of this, from the Rodney King riots in 1992 to the Baltimore riot after the Freddy Gray shooting.
Police PR flaks and police apologists in the media like to exploit these actions by a very small subset of protesters, making the response to the injustice into the story and distracting from the greater issues. By refocusing on the violence of certain protests, these individuals are able to completely distract the public from the original violence that sparked the anger. IN addition to using this to improve their messaging, the police will often also use it as an excuse to tear gas, beat, or break apart protesters who are not violent and who would otherwise be seen as victims of police abuse.
Put simply, large portions of the older, white, middle class audience that watches cable news is much more scared OF black people rioting than FOR black people and the increased risks of police violence they face. This means that it is fairly easy for this type of distraction to propagate, as it gets ratings.
Unfortunately, this tactic is extremely effective, particularly now that we have such easy access to video footage of violence in the streets. Activists must be extremely careful to eliminate violent splinters within their organizations in order to promote peaceful (although not always legal or convenient) protests that cannot become a distraction.
- Sabotage the Legal Case
If by some set of circumstances, police officers end up being charged with a killing, there are often structural impediments to getting them convicted.
In some cases, the District Attorney will simply draw out the investigation and refuse to file official charges until they think that they can safely let the case die. The DA is currently trying to do this with the Tamir Rice shooting (where an officer with a history of mental health problems essentially did a drive-by on an 11-year old with a toy gun), but activists have managed to bring suit in court, and a local judge has decided that there is probable cause to charge the officer with murder. Whether this means that the case will proceed is unknown, but it makes it significantly harder for the DA to simply let the case die.
…and yet, McCulloch still let this woman testify in front of the grand jury for the Michael Brown shooting.
In other cases, the DA will scuttle the prosecution at the grand jury. The ultimate example of this was the Michael Brown shooting, where the DA not only presented the defense’s case, but knowingly let witnesses lie in favor of the police, concealed evidence that would have looked bad for the police, demonized the victim, and gave the wrong version of the law to be considered (one that made an indictment virtually impossible). This was the definition of a thrown legal case, but there are many less overt examples.
While not every one of these five tactics is used in each police killing, they are too common to ignore. We must identify what these police apologists are doing so that we can inoculate the public to their tactics and reduce their ability to excuse the unforgivable. Activists must stay on message and not let distracting and irrelevant talking points get in the way of the real issues (ex. the marijuana use of a police shooting victim). They must demand that the media do the same, and point out the use of these tactics wherever they are used.