Growing up in the 1950s in Audubon, I lived across the street from one of our town’s policemen, Sonny Thomas. He was my idol. Once he took me to the station house, showed me the offices and jail, and even gave me some old wanted posters. I remember Sonny as a sweet, caring soul who, when he wasn’t a cop, saved lives by serving on the rescue squad. When he passed away, a story in the local press reported that he had fired his weapon only once in the line of duty, and that was to wound a man who threatened to kill him. Today I wonder what Sonny would think of all of the police brutality stories grabbing the headlines.
On April 4 a North Charleston, S.C., police officer gunned down Walter Scott who was running away from him following a traffic stop. After initially being tasered, Scott began to flee and was shot in the back eight times. He apparently ran because he was wanted for child support. The officer has been arrested for murder.
This past August John Crawford was holding a BB gun in an Ohio Wal-Mart while talking to his girlfriend on the phone. When police responded to a 911 call, he yelled “It’s not real,” but they shot him dead.
In August 2014 St. Louis Metropolitan Police, within fifteen seconds of their arrival, shot and killed Kajieme Powell. He was accused of stealing drinks and donuts from a convenience store and then coming close to the officers while holding a knife “in an overhand grip.”
There are two common denominators in the above stories. The first is that all of the victims were black. The second is that the truth of what actually happened was revealed not in any official police report but by video shot by bystanders’ cell phones and, in the case of the Wal-Mart slaying, by the store’s surveillance camera. The ubiquity of video in our society, including the increased use of body and dashboard cameras by police, is challenging the veracity of officers’ reports and bringing transparency and accountability to policing.
The needless deaths trouble me. Perhaps I am naïve and maybe I watched too many episodes of the Lone Ranger as a kid, but can’t the police just as easily “wing” suspected perps in the shoulder or leg when they’re at point-blank range? That’s what Sonny Thomas once did. Is it necessary to always aim at body mass? And why aren’t Tasers used more? We are talking about life and death here or, more pointedly, about police acting as judge, jury, and executioner, and often when no crime is apparent.
Also, why fire so many deadly rounds? Walter Scott was shot eight times. In 2012 when thirteen Cleveland police chased and stopped a car after they heard a shot fired, they volleyed 137 bullets at the two passengers. One was shot 24 times; the other 23 times. No gun was found in the car. There was no evidence that the suspects had exchanged fire with the police. I’ll let you guess their race.
I don’t wish to tar all policemen with the same brush. The vast majority of them “honor and protect” our communities and perform countless acts of kindness and mediation. Without their thin blue line, society would revert to the law of the jungle. But even the police must recognize that there is a perverted pattern of behavior within their ranks, and it reveals itself most dishonorably when minorities are involved.
For years we have heard of how police constitute an army of occupation in black neighborhoods; of the use of excessive force; of people being stopped simply for driving while black; of how some officers think black lives don’t matter. Now, with the easy availability of video, these stories have gained unassailable credence and can only make one wonder how many policemen have gotten away with senseless beatings and murders in the past. Consider this: If not for the cell phone video of Walter Scott’s murder, Officer Slager would be back on the beat today.
Perhaps the daily exposure to some of the worst and most depraved activities in society have hardened some officers’ hearts and clouded their souls. But the problem appears to go deeper than that and points to a racist subculture among some of them. This has to be stamped out. And yes, we need to begin yet another chapter in our country’s ongoing conversation on race. That’s because all lives matter.
Frank Batavick is a graduate of Gloucester Catholic (‘63) and La Salle University ('67) with over 40 years of experience as a television writer/producer/director for public TV and media companies in IN and NJ. He has also served as adjunct faculty and visiting professor in Communications at colleges and universities in NY and MD. Frank now lives in MD with his wife Dori (GCHS, ‘63), where he is the vice chair of the Historical Society of Carroll County’s board of trustees, editor of the Carroll History Journal, and a weekly columnist and occasional feature writer for the Carroll County Times.