When Black Cops Go Bad

There is tragedy and irony in the nationally aired videotaped shooting of Air Force policeman Elio Carrion in an area east of Los Angeles and the subsequent indictment of San Bernardino County Sheriff’s deputy Ivory Webb, Jr. The tragedy is that the shooting even took place. Carrion apparently complied with Webb’s commands, was unarmed, and posed no threat to the officer. Webb has been charged with attempted involuntary manslaughter.

The irony is that Webb is black and Carrion is Latino. Black leaders and community activists have long clamored for more black cops. They say that they would be less likely to brutalize other blacks and minorities than white cops. In the past decade, most big city police departments have implemented aggressive minority outreach and recruitment programs. Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati have had ugly racially tinged deadly encounters involving police shootings of unarmed blacks.

They have been slapped with Justice Department consent decrees and forced to hire and promote more women and minority officers. But a black cop shooting an unarmed black or Latino under highly questionable circumstances is no longer an oddity. In the past two years, black cops have gunned down unarmed blacks in Chicago, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Baltimore, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Gary, Indiana, Inglewood, California and Los Angeles.

A Justice Department report in 2000 found that a majority of white cops did not think that police were more prone to treat blacks more harshly than whites. A sizable number of black cops agreed. Despite massive public attention and outrage over the blue code of silence, the Justice Department survey found that eighty percent of police officers either believed the code of silence was necessary to do good police work or feared retaliation from other officers or even the brass if they squealed on bad cops.

Black cops were no more anxious to come forth to report misconduct by other officers than white cops out of fear of not being seen as a team player and that protesting abuse will damage their career. Many Black cops are also infected with the “us versus them” police siege mentality and will commit and then attempt to cover-up their misconduct or brutal acts. The problem of blacks using deadly force against other blacks will probably get worse. The number of black officers on big city police departments has soared since the 1970s.

Many of them are young, inexperienced, recent recruits. They are often assigned to work in low income, black and Latino neighborhoods. And since black and Latino males commit more crimes than whites, many police are convinced that black communities are a dangerous, and risky place where violent thugs abound and every encounter is potentially life threatening. Webb, for instance, claimed that he thought Carrion was reaching for a gun. Criminal justice experts agree that no matter how much training officers get, how they react in a situation on the streets depends on their own apprehensions and prejudices and that police work tends to aggravate whatever prejudices they have. Many black officers have those same prejudices as whites. They do not live in or grow up in impoverished black neighbors and see them as hostile and alien places. Many of them are just as jittery as white cops at the prospect of an armed encounter with other blacks.

It’s not only dubious shootings by black cops of other minorities that’s a growing problem. It’s also the blind spot many black police officials have toward these shootings. That was evident in the killing of Margaret Laverne Mitchell, a black middle aged, emotionally disturbed, homeless woman who was slain in an altercation over a shopping cart in May 1999 by an LAPD officer. After demonstrations, marches, and angry protests, then LAPD Chief Bernard Parks, an African-American, ruled that the officer used bad tactics. The L.A. Police Commission ruled the shooting out of policy. Yet the officer was never punished. In every case, black police officials promise a vigorous investigation but in most of the cases the officers are not punished, or receive a mild hand slap reprimand.

Black police chiefs also know that while a shooting such as that of Mitchell shooting will almost always trigger rage and protest, they will not be the target of that rage and protest. Black leaders are loath to criticize black officials directly or to blame them for police misconduct. The feeling is that an attack on black officials will publicly embarrass them and reinforce the perception among whites that blacks are incompetent. This is seen as tantamount to racial betrayal. Airman Carrion did not know that he would be the victim of a wrongful shooting at the hands of a fellow officer, let alone a black officer. But he was. That just proved that some black cops can and do take the law into their own hands as readily and easily as some white officers.

EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON is a columnist for BlackNews.com, an author of The Disappearance of Black Leadership and The Assassination of the Black Male Image.