Time after time, black American communities erupt in stormy anger after white police officers kill unarmed blacks. It’s a never-ending pattern — implying that too many police departments automatically treat African Americans as criminals.
Currently, outrage is exploding at Ferguson, Mo., because a white officer gunned down a black teen a few days before he was to enter college. The unarmed youth evidently was stopped because he walked in the middle of a street, and was suspected of a petty theft. He reportedly had his hands in the air as he was killed. Ever since, heavily armed police in riot gear have tried to suppress violent protests and looting.
A week earlier, uproar struck Staten Island after white officers choked a black man to death on a sidewalk because they suspected he was selling cigarettes improperly. Videos of the strangling filled national television. A coroner ruled the killing a homicide.
Would these police killings have occurred if the targets were white? We doubt it. We think they reveal entrenched racism lurking beneath the surface of U.S. society. Here are some similar cases:
n African immigrant Amadou Diallo was killed by 19 police bullets in New York City in 1999. Officers thought he looked like a rape suspect. When Diallo reached for his wallet to show his identification, police thought he was reaching for a gun. Officers were acquitted of murder — but New York taxpayers paid Diallo’s family $3 million.
n Manuel Loggins Jr., a Marine sergeant, was driving with two daughters in California when his vehicle struck a school gate. A deputy who said Loggins displayed a “mean” expression fired three times through the car window, killing him. The deputy wasn’t charged — but taxpayers paid $4.4 million damages to the victim’s family.
n Just before his wedding, Sean Bell attended a bachelor party at a New York strip club in 2006. As he left, officers surrounded his car, and claimed that he tried to ram them. They shot him to death and wounded two of his companions. Officers were acquitted of criminal charges — but they left the police department and taxpayers paid $7 million damages.
n Five New Orleans officers went to prison because they opened fire on blacks fleeing across a bridge after Hurricane Katrina. Two were killed and four wounded.
Police have dangerous jobs. They can encounter kill-or-be-killed situations. But it’s profoundly disturbing that they often shoot unarmed people by mistake — and victims of white officers often are black. It smacks of raw racism.