Law & the Courts

The Police Shooting Debate: Misleading Arguments Obscure Sobering Truths

NYPD officers in Manhattan, December 2015. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
Government can help ease police–public tensions by passing only wise and just laws.

If you spend any time reading progressives who write about police shootings, you’ll see a consistent, inflammatory deception — the notion that black Americans are killed simply for engaging in “everyday activities.”

Fringe writers put together lists such as “23 Actions Punishable by Death if You’re Black in America” while black intellectual heroes such as Ta-Nehisi Coates write that the law “chokes people to death over cigarettes” or shoots people over “compact discs, traffic stops, drivers’ licenses, loud conversations, or car trouble.” Writing in the Washington Post, one of the more thoughtful men in America, John McWhorter, even says that it is a “regular occurrence for black men to be killed for no reason.”

But this is dangerously misleading. Though there are extremely rare circumstances of shootings where there appears to be no conceivable justification — the shooting by South Carolina trooper Sean Groupert was incredibly disturbing (and he was prosecuted for it) — as a general matter, police shootings occur because intervening events trigger deadly force.

Trayvon Martin didn’t die because he wore a hoodie but rather because he got in a fight with an armed man. Alton Sterling didn’t die because he was selling compact discs but because the police received a call about a man brandishing a gun, and then Sterling refused to get on the ground when ordered and seemed impervious to a taser — triggering exactly the kind of confrontation that ratchets up the potential for deadly violence. Even during the horrible shooting of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, police weren’t executing a child for playing with a toy gun but rather reacting after a dreadful failure of communication between dispatchers and the police led a jumpy officer to treat the confrontation as if he was dealing with an “active shooter.”

RELATED: How to Address the Problem of Police Shootings

Moreover, intervening events also escalate otherwise-innocuous confrontations with white victims all the time. So when McWhorter questions whether white men are “killed under similar circumstances year after year,” the answer is a resounding yes. Indeed, a new study authored by Harvard economics professor Roland Fryer suggests “no racial bias” in police shootings. More work needs to be done to verify the findings in this study, but clearly cops also shoot white people under questionable circumstances — just ask the families of Gilbert Collar or Samantha Ramsey or Christopher Roupe. The list could go on.

But while police aren’t actually executing black men over selling CDs or cigarettes or for broken tail lights, it is true that deliberate government policies are in fact ratcheting up tensions between police and members of the community and increasing the number of strained interactions between the police and the public.

#share#Consider traffic stops for a moment. It’s one thing to use police to protect public safety — to protect innocents from reckless and dangerous driving — it’s another thing entirely to use armed men to preserve either the government’s cash-generating automotive-regulatory regime or its nanny-state obsession with aesthetics. It’s one thing to protect property owners from trespassing, but it’s another thing entirely to use armed men to preserve the government’s zoning and business regulations — including regulations against selling goods or services without licenses.

Does anyone think most cops want to be the tax collectors of the regulatory state?

Rules and regulations multiply and, as a result, so do fees and fines. Poor communities — for reasons of education and underlying financial stress — tend to be least equipped to adjust to the new, highly regulated reality, and they are thus most vulnerable to the traffic stops over vehicle registration or police interrogations over unlicensed or illegal business activities. Indeed, each such stop can represent further financial disaster and increase tension far beyond that experienced by wealthier citizens.

Does anyone think most cops want to be the tax collectors of the regulatory state? And when tensions already exist between law enforcement and the community, why would a rational government consistently work to increase the scope of police duties well beyond public safety? Governments and the public should be reminded that every new regulation is ultimately enforced at the point of a gun, and regulations that require immediate police enforcement tend to point that gun most frequently at the segment of the public that already encounters police the most.

#related#Combine the inherent tension in interactions between police and civilians with the all-too-obvious fallibility of man, and it is in everyone’s best interests to decrease the number of those interactions. As with all functioning societies, that can only be accomplished through the exercise of mutual responsibilities. Citizens have a responsibility to obey the law unless the law is manifestly unjust. Governments have the responsibility not simply to pass just laws but to enforce them reasonably and fairly. The revenue-hungry nanny state is not living up to its responsibilities, and it is systematically disadvantaging its most vulnerable citizens.

So, no, America is not executing black men or white men for petty offenses, but by multiplying those petty offenses America is placing its police and its citizens at increased risk for tension, confusion, anger, and — ultimately — death. There is no one answer for police shootings, but one of the answers is to limit government and preserve cops for their primary role — protecting the public.

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