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AMEND CORNER: Equal treatment by the law

Many years ago, I watched a sheriff shoot a black man who was running away from him. The incident was troubling because the sheriff shot the man in the back, and because the man had not committed a serious crime, but he ran because he knew he would be treated badly anyway if he were arrested. So he ran from the sheriff and was shot simply because he was afraid.

That shooting took place in “The Learning Tree,” a movie adapted from a book of the same name. The author, Gordon Parks, had witnessed and experienced similar incidents while growing up in a small town near the Missouri border in southern Kansas. His book, which Parks identified as a semi-autographical novel, recounts how Newt Winger, a 14-year-old African American boy, negotiates the complex racial climate of the 1920s.

Last week in a video of a real-life incident, I saw a police officer calmly pull his handgun and fire eight shots at a fleeing black man, mortally wounding him. He then strolled leisurely to the dying man lying face down, pulled the man’s hands from under his body and slapped handcuffs on him. Only then did he stroll back to his squad car and use his radio, apparently to summon medical help.

Then it got worse. The officer picked up an object, from the ground by the car, walked back to the victim, who by this time appeared lifeless, and dropped the object on the ground. Another officer arrived in the meantime, and after a short conference, walked away as the shooter picked up the item — which, from information revealed later, was his Taser — and put it in his pocket.

The officer had stopped the victim because his car had a broken taillight, but the victim was quite far behind in his child support payments, so there was a warrant out for his arrest. The threat of arrest probably was why the man tried to run away. Failing to pay child support is, of course a serious matter, but it’s hardly a reason to shoot a man, especially when the man is running away from you. Certainly, the officer was in no danger that would justify deadly force.

The officer reported that he feared for his life because the victim had taken his Taser, and that report was initially accepted. But two men who happened to be passing by recorded the incident with their cell phones, unnoticed by the officers. Initially, both men kept quiet about their videos, afraid of retaliation, but when one of them heard about the officer’s official report, he decided to take the risk of making his video public. The other spectator followed suit, and the officer was promptly fired and accused of murder, based on what the video showed.

Both of these killings are troubling, but the recent, real-life murder is especially troubling, because it occurred in a very different world than the one Newt lived in.  Jim Crow was alive and well in the 1920s, and the resulting injustices were written into law. Racial discrimination was openly enforced by the government in some parts of the country and barely hidden in others. Lynching and assassination of black citizens were common and seldom punished. It was the norm at the time, so the sheriff probably believed he was doing the right thing.

It’s a different world now, though. Discrimination on the basis of race cannot be written into law, and a concerted effort has been made over the years to ensure equal protection under the law. It hasn’t been totally successful, and that’s disappointing; but by now it should be clear to everyone that you can’t arrest somebody because of his race, and it’s definitely not legal to shoot a man because you don’t like his race.

Obviously, discrimination happens, and that’s disturbing; but it’s even more disturbing in the light of recent events. In the past year, a dozen African-American males, including one 12-year old boy, have been shot by policemen. Although some are still under investigation, only two officers have been charged with crimes.

Police officers have the right to defend themselves, but in most of these cases, the victim was unarmed, and that has damaged the public’s perception of police in general. Given that damage, I would think officers everywhere would be especially aware that they are being watched and take extra care to avoid similar incidents.

Instead, in the latest incident, the video shows the officer in question carrying out the shooting dispassionately. He doesn’t appear to be afraid of, or even angry, at his target. Instead, he looks as though it’s part of his daily routine, as though he’s a sanitation department worker pushing a broom, rather than a police officer armed with a firearm and a Taser, and with the ability to call other officers for help. To make it worse, another officer was willing to back up the lie he presented to his superiors.

I have a great deal of sympathy and respect for law enforcement officers. They have a difficult and sometimes dangerous job, and the people they serve often don’t appreciate, and sometimes even resent, the work the officers do. Doing their job well means they sometimes have to take action that will anger somebody.

I would like to believe that they treat everyone appropriately, and that they only use force, especially deadly force, as a last resort and without bias toward any racial or political group.

Unfortunately, if this past year has created the impression that a few law enforcement officers see their primary duty as treating one group of people differently from others, and that they have less respect for the lives of that group, then our nation will still have a foot in the world when Newt Winger was 14, and the sheriff could, with impunity, shoot down a black man for the most insignificant reason. That would mean less respect for those who serve us honorably and likely would make their job more dangerous.

Discrimination will never be completely eliminated, of course, nor will mistakes by police officers. Still, it’s important that, as a nation, we work toward eliminating both, because equal treatment by the law is basic to our freedoms.

It’s those freedoms, after all, that have made us a great nation.

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