Empathy and Police Brutality

How little regard for humanity does one have when the first response to a murder is justification? Suggestions that there must have been a gun or drugs, even when there is no evidence. Or he must have been scary. Forgetting that none of the above comes with a death sentence. I want to believe that people go through these mental gymnastics to justify the unjustifiable because we want to believe that a police officer would never kill an innocent human being. Because if the people sworn to protect and serve can kill people, whether guilty or innocent, without impunity (as so often is the case), we have to take a long hard look at our selves and the criminal justice system we have created.

Robbie Tolan is shot in his driveway by a police officer who ran the wrong license plate. He is lucky enough to survive, but now lives with a bullet inside his body. He sues the police officer for violating his constitutional rights. The court only hears the officer’s side of the story and the jury issues a not guilty verdict. On appeal a higher court throws out the case. The police officer was punished with a promotion to lieutenant. The city settles with a civil suit. Robbie Tolan receives $110,000 for his trouble.

I still remember the first time I learned that many black people are afraid of the police. I was young and naive. I remember my surprise and confusion. I wasn’t afraid of the police. They’re the good guys. I’m still not afraid for the most part, but other people’s fear doesn’t surprise me anymore. The idea that a traffic stop or car trouble could end in my death at the hands of a police officer is incomprehensible to me. Yet this is a fear that weighs heavy on mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, an entire community. And it is a reality for so many. We have the video. Turn on the news and watch the video of a murder on a loop. Where is the outrage? The disgust? The grief for a human being and their family? No, we begin the mental gymnastics to justify the unjustifiable. Instead of outrage we take solace knowing that the people in those videos don’t look like us.