Another week, another confrontation between a white police officer and an unarmed black citizen.
Thankfully, the latest incident in McKinney, Texas — in which the officer slammed a black teenager to the ground for no apparent reason, and then pointed his handgun at two young men who rushed to her side — did not lead to another death. But it has renewed a chorus heard from Ferguson to Baltimore about law enforcement’s mistreatment of African-Americans.
If you are naturally skeptical of race-based explanations for these situations, let me invite your sympathy for the victims on entirely different grounds: the abuse of power by those who amount to armed versions of what Cicero called “a holder of little authority in which he delights.”
Such petty tyrants do not by any means represent all or even most agents of our government. But they are common enough for most of us to be familiar with the type. Consider the offenses which sparked some of these incidents:
In McKinney, it was a disturbance at a private swimming pool that appeared to have ended by the time police arrived.
The recent riots in Baltimore broke out to protest the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. How did Gray end up in police custody? He “fled unprovoked upon noticing police presence,” so the police chased him. Only afterward did they discover he was carrying a knife.
Eric Garner, who died last year after an officer’s chokehold on Staten Island, N.Y., was initially confronted because police suspected him of selling untaxed cigarettes. As far as I can tell, their accusation, which Garner denied repeatedly, has not been substantiated.
John Geer, according to the Washington Post earlier this year, “committed no known crime” and “had been speaking calmly with the officers for almost three-quarters of an hour when the lethal shot was fired” outside his home in Fairfax County, Va., where police responded to a domestic dispute in August 2013.
Among these examples, only Geer was white. Obviously, that doesn’t make his life any more or less valuable, or his case any more or less tragic, than the others. But because race tends to be so polarizing, and so politicized, perhaps the example of Geer (and others) can broaden support for the idea that something has to change in the way police and citizens interact.
There’s no doubt cops face dangerous situations day in and day out. They deserve our respect, and even the benefit of the doubt when they make snap decisions with their lives on the line. But that respect shouldn’t blind us to the very poor decisions some of them make with their lives very much not at risk — decisions that call into question whether some officers reciprocate that respect toward citizens.
Nor should it excuse other, less visible abuses of power such as civil asset forfeiture, in which police can seize the private property of people suspected of wrongdoing without ever charging them with a crime.
Ubiquitous technology allows us to see more of these incidents than ever before. Anyone who cares about civil liberties or government overreach should be alarmed at how much there is to see.