On Cops and Black Men

In what follows, I will talking about things we feel very strongly about; and it is hard to think clearly when we feel strongly. So let me first lay out five kinds of decisions in an area that we can think about reasonably calmly (assuming nobody we love has died in a plane crash).

1. Some decisions are good decisions made by good people and they turn out well. The movie Sully is all about the question of whether Sully’s decision to land on the Hudson, which obviously turned out well, was a good one (I think everybody agrees it was).

2. Some decisions are bad decisions and they turn out well anyway just because the person who made them got lucky. If a pilot gets on a plane after have a couple of quick ones, and he flies the plane successfully and lands safely, that was still a bad decision, and he ought to be suspended even though nothing bad happened.

3. Some decisions are evil decisions made by evil people. The pilot who flew his plane straight into a mountain a couple of years ago, because he didn’t just want to commit suicide but wanted to kill lots of other people too, is an example. If the other pilot had somehow managed to break in and save the plane, then it would been entirely just to hang the would-be murder-suicide dude for attempted murder.

4. Some decisions are hard decisions where a good person just gets it wrong, but you can’t really blame him because it was too hard a choice and not enough time to make it. If Sully had tried to make it back to La Guardia, nobody would blame him, but lots of people would have died. These are tragedies where nobody is to blame. If that had been the situation and somebody had tried to sue Sully for “murdering my mom,” that person would have been a jerk because you really couldn’t have blamed Sully. In the movie the NTSB people are trying to say that Sully made a bad choice because (a) most people would have gone back to the airport, and (b) that would have been the right decision. They change their mind when he proves that the decision most people would have made, would have been the wrong one. If he had tried to go back to La Guardia and failed, and the NTSB had tried to blame him, he could have tried to show that most people would have tried to go back to La Guardia (for example, that’s what the air traffic controller was telling him to do); and if he had, then they would have said, “It turned out to be the wrong decision, but we can’t blame you for making it.”

5. Some decisions are terrible and inexcusable decisions made by good people who are either generally incompetent and have no business being in that job in the first place, or else who are in a moment of high stress and made an uncharacteristic, but disastrous, mistake. The Air France pilot who inexplicably tried to fly the plane straight up until it stalled and fell into the middle of the Atlantic would be an example of this. He wasn’t trying to kill anybody but if he had survived miraculously then we probably would have put him in jail for manslaughter – manslaughter being the crime of killing a person when you weren’t being malicious but also your behavior was, even under the circumstances, inexcusable, and as a result some innocent person died.

In the last case, there can be an argument about whether the person who made the decision should be blamed, or whether instead the people who put him in the job without making sure he was competent should be blamed. Thus we can either blame the Air France pilot for being incompetent, or we can blame Air France for not training him carefully and not making sure he was competent before they let him fly a plane through a mid-Atlantic thunderstorm in the middle of the night.

So the challenge in evaluating decisions is that we tend to say a decision is a good or bad one based on results. But this is foolish. Some people make good decisions, or at least decisions that you can’t reasonably blame them for, and they turn out badly. Some people make bad decisions and they turn out fine. (There was a famous case years ago where a customer called his broker and told him to buy stock, and the broker sold it instead, which is literally the worst mistake a broker can make. But right after the broker sold the stock, and before there was time for the mistake to be corrected, the stock market collapsed in the Black Monday 1987, and the customer made millions. So the customer made the worst decision he could make, and the broker then made the worst decision HE could make, and the result of these two bad decisions was that the customer got rich. C’est la vie, sometimes.) You have to judge decisions based on the information that was available to the person at the time, and also how much time they had to make the decision, and also how much stress they were under; and then you have to compare it to what most reasonable and well-meaning people would have decided in the same situation.

In the case of cops faced with having to decide whether a suspect is about to try to kill them, and whether therefore they need to resort to deadly force, I think we have to keep in mind the peculiar difficulty of the decision – but without forgetting that even though in the abstract the decision may be difficult, there can be situations where in that specific situation the decision is easy enough that there is no excuse for getting the wrong answer. (In other words, you have to recognize that cops have to make decisions few other people can understand; but you cannot say that whenever a cop shoots a suspect he should be able to go free if he just says, “Hey, I thought he was going to shoot me.”) So: there are cases where it would take ten seconds to decide whether a suspect was likely to shoot you or not, but if you wait ten seconds and he is a bad guy, you’ll already be dead because it will only take him four seconds to kill you. You WILL decide in less than ten seconds, because the decision is, “Will I wait too long to decide to shoot?” and if you don’t decide to shoot in ten seconds then you have already decided to wait too long. In such cases two of the four possible outcomes are tragic: (1) The cop shoots the suspect before the suspect can shoot him, and it turns out the suspect was innocent. Tragic outcome; the suspect was an innocent person who just died. (2) The cop doesn’t shoot in time, and it turns out the suspect is a cop-killer, which the cop finds out when he gets fatally shot. Tragic outcome, because the cop is an innocent guy who just died. (3) The cop gambles on innocence and the guy is innocent; nobody dies. Good outcome; we all breathe a sigh of relief. (4) The cop shoots first and it turns out that it’s a good thing because the suspect was pulling a gun. Good outcome, frankly, IMHO; because no innocent person has died and I am fine with having people who are trying to kill innocent people getting killed themselves.

With that background: I think the following things are generally true.

1. Most cops are good cops.

2. There are bad cops – most of whom are more incompetent than malicious but some of whom are downright bad dudes.

3. Good people sometimes do bad things. In particular, good people under high stress sometimes make terrible decisions. Most of all, good people under high stress who perceive themselves to be in mortal danger, sometimes do terrible things. And sometimes, as a result, innocent people die.

4. Good people sometimes make decisions that aren’t bad decisions but that turn out tragically.

5. Until a person is actually put into a perceived life-and-death situation, there is no way to know how he or she will react. This is true even with good training – it is not possible to provide better training than the American military does, and yet there are soldiers who, the first time they face live fire, panic under the pressure. No police force can have the budget to provide training that comes up to the military standard, and therefore a certain number of cops who are good people in general are going to make disastrous decisions the first time they find themselves making life-and-death choices. (If I were ever put into that situation I might be one of the people who panic and do things they spend the rest of their life regretting and being ashamed of, and so might you – which does NOT mean it’s okay, only that a certain amount of humility is called for when judging people who have failed in situations we ourselves have never been tested in.)

6. People who do bad things have to be held accountable even when they are generally good people. It is wrong to treat them as if they were bad people; but it is also wrong to behave as if they had not done a bad thing. (This is the whole point of the crime of manslaughter: we recognize that the person who caused the death was not malicious or evil, but we also recognize that what they did was a bad thing that caused the death of an innocent person.)

7. People sometimes die as a result of tragic misunderstandings where it is nobody’s fault – nobody has done anything bad, but somebody dies anyway. The mere fact that an innocent person has died does not mean that somebody has to be punished; in the case of tragic misunderstandings, if you punish somebody, then you do not create “justice” – you simply ensure that TWO innocent people suffer rather than one.

8. The line between “tragic misunderstanding” and “culpably bad decision” is bloody hard to draw, and borderline cases are hard on everybody simply because there is room for genuine disagreement and no matter where the decision comes down somebody will feel that justice has not been done.

9. Where we have strong loyalties, we have a hard time with borderline cases, because whenever there is doubt we tend to come down on the side of our loyalties. Then, when somebody whose loyalties are on the other side does the same thing, we accuse them of being “biased” and of “ignoring the facts.” This is human nature, and we need not feel guilty about having natural loyalties and natural biases; that is tantamount to feeling guilty for being human beings rather than angels. However, each of us has a moral duty to recognize and acknowledge our own biases as clearly as we recognize and call out the biases of those who disagree with us. Thus, in the case of a cop who kills a suspect who turns out to have not been a threat (such as the cop who killed Dillon Taylor “for trying to turn off his iPod”), the young man’s family and friends will tend to be too ready to call the cop a murderer, and the cop’s brothers in blue will tend to be too ready to say the cop did nothing wrong. It is fine for the family to say, “The cops are biased,” as long as they are ALSO willing to say, “And so are we.”

Note that all of this is true without respect to race. (Dillon Taylor, like most people killed every year by cops, was white.) This is especially the case since, despite the grotesque disparity in news coverage, cops kill white people far more frequently than black people, and sometimes in outrageous circumstances. (Though, given that there are 800,000 cops in 300,000,000-person America and only 987 of them killed anybody at all last year, including people who shot at them first, “frequently” is an entirely relative, and quite misleading, term. People who speak of “epidemics” of killings by cops…you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. Though I think we certainly do have an epidemic of ruthlessly hyped news coverage of killings of black people by cops.)

Now let us talk about this with regard to the interaction of black men with cops.

1. It is all but impossible for people not to generalize from their own experiences to at least some degree, especially when their experiences are correlated by statistical fact (or by the illusion of statistical fact created by incessantly one-sided news coverage). It is hard for cops not to generalize from their experiences with black men and it is hard for black men not to generalize from their experiences with cops.

2. Perfectly-trained and impartial cops would generally kill people who were genuine threats to the lives of innocents and not generally kill people who were not. Therefore the first question to be asked when trying to determine whether cops treat members of some races differently than others in fatal encounters, is to compare the rate at which cops kill members of any given race to the rate at which cops are killed by members of that race. Cops who were making decisions purely on accurate assessment of threats would kill suspects in racial proportions that matched the racial proportions of people who actually kill cops; significant variations from this rule, whether to the high side or the low side, call for explanation.

3. Black men commit crimes at a significantly higher rate than do members of any other identifiable-on-sight demographic. In particular, a significantly disproportionate number of the people who kill cops are black. The percentage of people killed by cops who are black is quite a bit lower than the percentage of cop-killers who are black. This implies that, if anything, cops in general are more reluctant to kill black people than they are people of any other race, a result that is probably surprising at first glance but that actually is readily explainable even if cops in general are racist, as we will see shortly.

4. There are plenty of black men who are not criminals, just as there are plenty of good cops who are willing to risk their own lives every day to protect the innocent, including innocent black people. The stereotype, “Black men are criminals” grossly overgeneralizes; black men are criminals at a higher rate than members of other demographics are criminals, but that doesn’t mean most black men are criminals. Similarly the stereotype, “America’s cops kill innocent black men,” grossly overgeneralizes; there were at most 50 cops last year who killed innocent black men, while 800,000 cops did not. It is as evil to talk as though all cops are racist black-haters as it is to talk as though all black men were violent criminals.

5. The victims of black criminals are overwhelmingly black people. While I am not particularly worried about a homicide in which two criminals have a shootout and one of them loses, one assumes that the majority of the victims of black criminals are innocent black people and therefore tragic victims.

6. Especially in high-crime cities with extreme gun control laws (e.g. Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit), the only defense innocent black people have against black criminals is the police, and therefore the lives and safety of innocent black people depend on effective cooperation between innocent black people and good cops.

7. The media can be counted on to crucify any cop who kills a black man, quite possibly even if the black man killed is killed in the act of setting up a machine gun for the purpose of spray-shooting a mall food court full of innocent black people — and the cops know it. (If Crutcher had been white, nobody outside of his friends and family would ever have heard his name. Dillon Taylor is an example of what I mean. On August 11, 2014, Dillon Taylor was walking with a couple of buddies down the street listening to music. A 9-1-1 caller called in their description and added the completely false information that the boys had “flashed a gun” (they did not have guns with them; the caller made that part up). “Non-white” cop Bron Cruz, acting on that information, shot Taylor dead when Taylor was turning around and took his hands out of his pockets to raise them. Everyone knows Michael Brown’s name. How many people know Dillon Taylor’s? Yet they were shot only two days apart. And there seem to have been only three real differences between the two cases. 1. Taylor had not just robbed a store and assaulted the owner; instead a 9-1-1 caller had said he “looked like” a gangbanger who was out to cause trouble. In that respect Taylor was more of a victim than Brown. 2. Nobody contends that Taylor attacked Cruz, while multiple black eyewitnesses told the grand jury that Brown attacked the cop who ultimately shot him. Unless those eyewitnesses were lying, Taylor was more of an innocent victim than Brown. 3. Brown’s story could be portrayed in the media as white-cop-shoots-unarmed-black-kid, while Taylor’s story was “non-white”-cop-shoots-unarmed-white-kid – wrong narrative; so bury the story.)

8. Cops, being human, generalize from their experience (which is amply backed up by statistical reality), and disproportionately suspect innocent black men of being criminals. However they also do not want to be the subject of witch hunts and therefore are generally reluctant to go so far as pulling the trigger on a black man. As a result…

9. …cops KILL black people at an abnormally low rate (as pointed out above), yet they naturally QUESTION black men, and show suspicion of black men, at an abnormally high rate. Thus you see how it could be true both that cops are racist and that they are reluctant to kill black people: self-preservation makes even a racist reluctant to be subject to a witch-hunt. However, in actual fact cops’ suspicion of black men is not because they are “racist” but because they are human beings who generalize from experience — we can be confident that it is not racism simply because black cops’ attitude toward black men parallels white cops’ attitude, in the same way that black cab drivers discriminate against young black men late at night just as much as white cab drivers do. Cops in general do not “hate black people;” insofar as they hate anybody, it is criminals that they hate; and the more they care about innocent black people the more anger they will feel toward the criminals (overwhelmingly black) who prey upon them. And their experience tells them that criminals are much more likely to be black men than any other demographic.

10. Black men who are NOT criminals get harassed by suspicious cops at a rate they KNOW to be abnormally high, and they KNOW it is because of their race. They therefore generalize from their experience and tend to be suspicious of cops in general, just as cops tend to generalize from their experience and tend to be suspicious of young black men in general. This does not make them “anti-cop” any more than it makes cops “racist” — the experience, and the generalizations drawn therefrom, are real.

11. The root of the distrust between cops and innocent black people is neither “anti-cop” black attitudes nor “racism” on the part of the cops — it is the behavior of black criminals, without whom the whole dynamic would not exist. It is the behavior of black criminals that makes it a true statement to say that black men are criminals at a higher rate than any other demographic, and it is the fact that that generalization is true that makes it a true statement to say that black men are treated with suspicion by cops more frequently than are members of any other demographic. If the first generalization were not true there is no good reason to think the second would be true (since the second holds equally for black and white cops and is therefore not a function of any desire to keep the Black Man down or any similar form of racial animus).

12. The following things need to happen if innocent black people are going to be protected from criminals (of any color, but since the criminals who prey on black people are overwhelmingly black, this is close to being the same thing as “to be protected from black criminals”):

12a. Young black men who are the victims of what we will call “profiling” need to understand that they are probably dealing with well-meaning cops who want to protect innocent black people, and while they obviously will see and feel the unfairness of their being suspected at sight because of their skin color, they should remind themselves that the people at fault for the unfairness are the black men whose behavior makes it TRUE that black men are a high-crime demographic, not the cops who are responding to that reality.

12b. Any time a cop stops and questions a black man, unless he has some specific reason to think this particular black man is a bad dude, he should go in reminding himself that most likely he is talking to an innocent man deserving protection rather than to a criminal.

12c. And any time the black guy does in fact turn out not to be a bad guy, the cop needs to go out of his way to express regret for the inconvenience and to thank the young man for his cooperation and his good character – for the cop needs to recognize that it is not that young man’s fault that he belongs to a demographic that disproportionately produces violent criminals. And innocent black people, such as the one he just questioned and treated with suspicion, need to know that good cops are on the side of innocent black people.

13. The best predictor of whether an innocent man will get killed by a cop is not the race of the man killed — it’s the degree to which the cops were primed to believe the man killed was a threat; and the way in which the initial report was phrased has more impact than the race of the suspect. (If people call 9-1-1 and say there’s a guy waving a gun, then you can get shot while standing in line at Wal-Mart to buy an air rifle and you can get shot while trying to turn off the iPod you have in your pocket, and that can happen whether you’re a black guy in Wal-Mart or a white guy listening to iTunes. Obviously I am referring to the two real cases of John Crawford and Dillon Taylor.)

14. If a cop really does turn out to have killed an innocent man with no reasonable grounds for having thought him a threat, then it is critically important for justice to be done. (It appears that the D.A. in Tulsa thinks that Officer Neels did not in fact have reasonable grounds for thinking Mr. Crutcher posed an imminent lethal threat; hence the manslaughter charge. Another case that seems to me to fall into this category is the killing of Philando Castile, which to me is considerably more outrageous than the Tulsa tragedy.)

15. Anybody conservative who tries to exaggerate either the degree to which black men commit crimes, or the degree to which black men hate cops, or any liberal who tries to exaggerate the degree to which cops turn out to be bad guys who want to hurt black people rather than protect them, is morally contemptible. This is obviously the case with the media, where every case in which a black guy is killed by the cops gets a week’s worth of coverage slanted to make the black guy look as innocent as possible, while the far more frequent cases in which white people are killed by the cops are suppressed in the news, thus creating the entirely false impression that cops kill black people at a far higher rate than they kill white people.

16. Whenever an incident such as this one takes place, everybody on both sides ought to take a deep breath and say, “I will NOT be part of a mob,” and suspend judgment (other than a highly tentative first-take-that-I’m-ready-to-change) while waiting for ALL the facts to come in.

17. Anybody who believes anything the media say in the first 24 hours after a black man is killed by a cop, is a moron.

18. The rational self-preservation strategy of cops in an environment where the media will treat them as murderers from the jump any time they find themselves forced to kill a black man no matter what the facts of the situation are, is to start avoiding situations in which they might encounter black criminals — which is to say, to back away from protecting innocent black people. Thus the result of the media / BLM approach to any situation in which a cop is killed by the police (the black guy is always an innocent deeply-loved family man who would never hurt a fly, even if he has sixteen assault convictions including domestic abuse and is killed while resisting arrest and carrying an illegal firearm with which he was threatening homeless black men just before the police arrived) could not possibly be ANYTHING other than to have the police withdraw to some degree their protection of innocent black people from black criminals.

19. You will never achieve perfect justice; so wise people try to make the best tradeoff to minimize injustice. Last year a maximum of 50 innocent black people were killed by cops (I’m taking this from the Washington Post’s database of all people killed by cops in 2015, most of whom were not in fact black). Meanwhile literally thousands of black people were murdered by black criminals. So say that in order to save those 50 lives you cause the police to withdraw their protection from innocent black people, and the result is that hundreds of additional innocent black people are murdered by the black criminals who are already killing thousands even with the police fully engaged. If that is the case, then either you are very stupid or else you are only pretending to care about innocent black people. And in fact the “Ferguson effect” is at this point far too well documented to be deniable — to the point that Shaun King himself has recognized it and has actually COMPLAINED THAT THE POLICE ARE NOT DOING THEIR JOBS…even though the tactics of Black Lives Matter could not possibly be expected to have any effect at all other than to force cops to stop doing their job of protecting innocent black people. (I am NOT saying that protesting injustice when cops kill innocent people inexcusably could not have any other effect; I am saying that the way BLM specifically goes about their protests cannot possibly have any other effect. It is possible to protest injustice responsibly and usefully; Dr. King is one of my heroes and I have read every book he ever published and most of his published short articles and sermons. But BLM appears to be attempting to provide a real-life practical course on How To Protest As Irresponsibly As Can Be Imagined While Causing As Much Damage To Your Own Community As Possible.)

20. Black Lives Matter and the media may (though in the case of the media I seriously doubt it) have good intentions; but if they have good intentions then they are very very stupid.

So that’s my overall take on the whole messy situation.


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