It was nearly 10 years ago when Eric Garner was selling loosies (individual cigarettes) on the streets of New York. Eric Gardner was a man who was barely getting by. He was in poor health. He was morbidly obese. He had been arrested multiple times for minor infractions. He was selling individual cigarettes in order to make money. On this particular street corner, he was actually known as a peacemaker.
On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner, a Black male, had just broken up a fight. The police were called. They saw Eric Gardner. They confronted him with regard to the sale of individual cigarettes. (This is illegal because it is not taxed.) Officer Daniel Pantaleo tried to handcuff Eric Garner. Mr. Gardner resisted. The police officer then wrestled Eric Garner to the ground using an illegal chokehold. Mr. Gardner was allowed to lie on the ground for seven minutes. Motionless. He was completely unresponsive. He was declared dead several minutes later on arrival at the hospital. No one went to jail.
In July 2016, Philando Castile was pulled over by police because he (and his girlfriend, who was also in the car) “look like people that were involved in a robbery.” It was 9 o’clock at night. Maybe, the police officer, Jeronimo Yanez, had x-ray vision. Maybe he had one of those biotic implants that the television character, Steve Austin, had in the hit show the $6 Million Man. In what can only be described as the worst misunderstanding of all time, Yanez asked for Castile’s license and registration. Castile mentions that he has a gun in the car. He reaches for his license and registration. He states that he is not pulling a gun out. Yanez repeats, “Don’t pull it out.” “I’m not pulling it out.” Then Yanez fires seven shots at close range. Mr. Castile is killed on the spot. Although Yanez was indicted, the jury voted to acquit.
Tyre Nichols was a 29-year-old Black man. He was stopped for reckless driving. Exactly what this means is unclear. Without any explanation, you know what happened. Basically, there is a confrontation with Black police officers. Mr. Nichols tries to run away. There is another confrontation in which it appears that all five Black police officers beat Mr. Nichols. Mr. Nichols is declared dead at the hospital hours later. After an investigation, the police officers have been fired. They have also been arrested on multiple felony charges.
A video has been released by the Memphis Police Department. This shows the death of Mr. Nichols. I will not be watching the video. There is nothing in that video that’s going to calm my nerves or change my mind. An unarmed American should not be beaten to death because of reckless driving. It is that simple.
It has been almost 10 years since the Eric Gardner tragedy. Yet, I’m hard-pressed to think of any major reforms that we’ve seen over the last decade. We’ve had protests. We have had heated rhetoric in State Capitols. At the end of the day, not much has changed.
Many Americans were shocked that Mr. Nichols was beaten and killed by Black officers. While race may play a minor part in many of these tragedies, I believe that the majority of these incidents revolve around respect and authority. The police officer desperately wants to be treated as a respected member of our society. At the same time, the person of color, who is usually a person of color, wants to be treated as an American citizen. How do we fix this problem?
We must recognize that we are all human. I know this sounds corny. It sounds like a cliché. But I don’t think it is. Instead, we must recognize that humans act differently in intense, high-pressure situations. Once our brains perceive that we are in a life-and-death situation, rational thought is shut off. We have now initiated the “fight or flight” response. Neurochemicals are released, which cause us to act differently. We are now in survival mode. In my opinion, this is why these five police officers acted like a pack of animals. (Arthur McDuffie was a Black man and ex-marine who was pulled over for speeding. He led the police on a high-speed chase. When he was caught, he was beaten to death by four police officers. This occurred in 1979!) This is why officer Yanez shot an unarmed man. As soon as he heard there was a gun in the car, he perceived a serious threat. His ability to rationally take in stimuli, verbal stimuli, was gone. So, the answer to this puzzle is to avoid putting police officers in these positions where they think they are in mortal danger. Allow them to retreat to their police cars and call for backup. As they’re waiting for backup to arrive, the immediate threat lessens. Their blood pressure and pulse will slowly return to normal. Their ability to think rationally will return. Police officers must be better trained to de-escalate situations.
These “elite” police squads are a huge red flag to me. On TV, these police officers always make the right decisions. They never go over the line unless it is absolutely necessary to apprehend the bad guy. These squads have been the source of intimidation, fear, abuse, and lawlessness in the real world. In Detroit, in the 70s, there was an elite squad that was given leeway to clean up crime. They abused citizens, and they planted evidence. Their low point was when they raided a “drug deal.” The drug deal turned out to be a card game between off-duty Black police officers. Several officers were shot. One was killed. This squad was disbanded. There are examples of these squads across the country – from LA to New York to Memphis. Memphis had its own elite unit called SCORPION, from which all 5 police officers were members. All of these elite units end the same way, with mixed results in combating crime but a clear history of abuse and killing American citizens at an alarming rate.
But we know this. Right!?!? We know that if you give humans control of another group of humans without oversight, abuse will occur. In a simple psychological experiment performed at Sanford in the early 1970s, volunteers were randomly assigned to be prisoners or guards. Within days, the guards were treating the jailed as lessors. The experiment was stopped on day 6 because the guards were inflicting extraordinary abuse on these prisoners. The lesson from this experiment is that we as human beings can be cruel and inhuman if we are not given supervision. Now, let’s give a group of police officers – super status. District attorneys and judges will look the other way just as long as these super cops are getting results. This is not a formula for community trust. It is a formula for disaster.