Terence Crutcher with his hands up, moments before he was fatally shot.

How to stop the cycle of killings we perpetuate

Since I was young, my mom has been having the obligatory talk with me. First when I was maybe 8 or so. Again at 13. Then 15. More thoroughly so when I started driving.

“Always respect an officer,” she told me, “He’ll have a position before you say a word.” “Say ‘Yes, sir.’ and ‘No, sir.’ and always keep your hands visible. Don’t make sudden movements. And above all else, comply.”

This conversation is one that’s been passed down through my entire family, male and female, and most all Black families that I know.

We have seen time and time again that the advice that my mom gave me to keep me safe isn’t enough to save my life. We have seen time and time again that someone’s pigment of their skin warrants filling it with bullets. We have seen time and time again that those responsible face little to no consequence.

Let’s look at the most recent example of this in an already gargantuan list growing at breakneck speeds and with no signs of slowing: Terence Crutcher.

Terence Crutcher, a 40 year old man in Tulsa, OK, can be seen on surveillance footage seemingly complying with officer commands, walking away from them with his hands up. Deciding that he was still a threat, the police on the scene called for backup. One of the responders, Betty Shelby decided that this unarmed man still served too much of a threat for all four officers present to peacefully take down. The only course of action left was to fatally shoot him in the back to ensure her safety.

Let’s just assume for a minute he decided to be completely noncompliant, as an officer speaking on the incident after the fact claims. Maybe even combative, but still unarmed. These four trained officers should still be able to subdue him without resorting to violence.

(And what’s the deal with no “steps” in situations like this, as she states around the 2:06 minute mark? Either complete dishonesty or a very dangerous loophole.)

For those who don’t like to entertain hypotheticals, from both dashcam and helicopter footage, we see from all perspectives that he has his hands up and is being non-combative. Yet despite being non-confrontational, compliant, and attempting to be as non-threatening as possible, one of the police in the helicopter thought he still seemed like, “one bad dude”. It’s not too mysterious as to how he came to that conclusion from roughly 5000 feet in the air, given just a rough, bird’s eye view of him.

That was unquestionably a tragic event that happened to one person, but maybe it could be an isolated occurrence.

Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile. Two cases with evidence showing police officers killing them where no one was in imminent danger.

Maybe those were outliers as well, I get it. Surely unarmed Black men aren’t getting targeted this often.

Samuel Dubose. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice (12 year old armed with a pellet gun). Walter Scott.

Not to mention,

Police shot Charles Kinsey, an unarmed Black therapist, while lying on the ground, hands up protecting his mentally ill client.

The common thread in most cases: police (who often had multiple, severe, or both complaints against them) killing unarmed Black men, while the perpetrators get off easy. People killed. They had mothers, fathers, friends, loved ones, like any of us. Not just some expendable body.

I’m not one for generally believing purely anecdotal evidence, much less just taking someone’s word for things, and I can’t expect you to. Is this the exception to the rule, or is this what’s happening on a larger scale.

Many reputable people have researched this. People and organizations from the likes of The Washington Post, The Guardian, crowd-sourced Killed by Police, and MappingPoliceViolence have found that police are targeting and killing Black men by an astounding margin over other demographics.

Before I go any further, I can’t fathom how difficult it must be to be a cop. I’m not a cop. I don’t know any cops. These are the people who swear an oath to protect us, often meaning putting themselves in exceedingly dangerous and sometimes life-threatening situations. Some situations require them to use their best judgment with adrenaline coursing through their veins. We rely on them to be level-headed when tensions get high. These are traits that many of us could not even begin to comprehend.

All of that being said, we have to face facts. Police brutality is a rampant issue in our society. Not only do police kill more people than nearly every other civilized nation, we do so by astronomical and nauseating margins. Since writing this article, police have killed 13 people, that we know of.

Don’t just take my word for it though.

Of the victims of these killings, Black people are 3 times more likely to die at the mercy of a police officer. When we account for unarmed Black men, we are 5 times more likely to die than a white person. Even more, crime rates, and police brutality aren’t even correlated. The police responsible for murdering these people, often unjustifiably so, often face no criminal charge.

This is an odd time to transition, but let’s talk about design. (I swear this is relevant.) I am a designer, and I enjoy reading a lot about it. If you know me, or peeked at my profile, you’d know that I advocate everyone practices design everyday. One of the things I read recently is that designers sometimes decide to constrain behavior. They decide to prohibit any actions they deem unacceptable; anything else is considered acceptable.

That is to say, sometimes it’s not about what is explicitly placed in the system, it’s about what the system constrains.

As it stands now, we have a system that perpetuates unjustified murders by deciding not to constrain this behavior and hold the responsible accountable.

Fighting some of the predispositions we’ve developed up to this point are going to be tough to reverse, but many other solutions aren’t that difficult to implement in the meantime.

Most of these points I got from this video.

  • The quickest and most impactful solutions seems to be to hold those responsible accountable, by having them to be judged by citizen review committees, instead of having them judged by their fellow cops.
  • Mandate that independent parties investigate any occurrence where a police officer uses lethal force.
  • Stop meeting people with violence over things that don’t threaten the public’s safety in any way (e.g. having a broken taillight, selling cigarettes, selling CDs, “looking suspicious”, loitering, jaywalking, so on). Ticketing seems like a more than appropriate alternative.

Some changes that need to be addressed need systematic changes.

  • Make the police force represent the community. Have the color of faces in the community reflect the color of the faces on the force.
  • Remove quotas. It breeds a mindset and sets a precedence of looking for problems where there are none, which we’ve seen how these situations typically pan out.
  • Limit the power of police unions. It makes little sense for the police to hide from the people they’re protecting assuming they’re confident they’re treating them fairly.
  • Reduce the median number of required instruction hours of firearm training and instead more time in de-escalation, self-defense, and mediation skills.
  • Demilitarize the police. Equipping the police with riot gear and assault weapons, akin to how we arm our soldiers with to battle international terrorism is a dangerous parallel to put in their minds.

Nothing can change if we don’t demand it. Those designing the system will assume our silence means complacency. We have to let them know we don’t approve of what they’re doing. We have to be informed and united.

Any great strides in minority rights and liberties has always been with the help and the unity of those outside of said group. Women’s suffrage, abolition of slavery, gay marriage, all possible because enough voices came together and made it so. Every voice matters, especially when the voices who need it most get drowned out among the rest.

A fitting and relevant example today is Colin Kaepernick. Even his peaceful protest of this issue was met with vehement resistance. Some critics claimed that it doesn’t even affect him, which is arguable at best. What isn’t debatable is that even if it doesn’t touch his life in any respect, he has a right to be upset with how this country is treating huge minority demographics. We need more people like him; we need people who won’t sit idly by while their neighbor is getting blatantly mistreated.

Now deciding to be silent is an unacceptable form of protest.

Alone we are small, united we are mighty. United we stand, divided we fall.

I’m an optimist, and I truly believe that things are as good as they’ve ever been, and are only getting better. The fact that we’re now seeing more and more of what was once below the surface is in fact such a great thing. People are now forced to acknowledge what they once avoided or clearly didn’t know existed. This knowledge will be the catalyst of change from a culture of victim blaming to a culture of empathy.

Until then, I want to stop the cycle of anger → hopelessness → sadness I get at news of every one of these killings. I’m sick of seeing the same cycle of murder → panic → “investigation” → victim blaming → no consequences every time another person dies to police. These feedback loops need to be broken.

I know no one sees all of what I am when initially seeing me. I know people don’t know that I am not just “one bad dude”, or that I have a promising future, or that if they talked to me for 5 minutes, there’s a high probability they’d like me (maybe not my lame sense of humor though). I know I can’t change the skin I’m in, as much as I can change people’s initial perception of me. What I hope to change is the rampant disenfranchisement and murder of people on the basis of their skin.

If you liked this, didn’t like it, have supplemental information, please let me know! The way to enact change is one conversation at a time, so please like this, share, or comment. Your influence is greater than you think.