Butch Conway is a friend, and I sincerely hope we remain friends after this. I’ve long admired his work as Gwinnett’s sheriff. But I’ve read his commentary regarding the Black Lives Matter movement, and I believe he’s wrong, both on the facts and on the substance of the concerns of people seeking accountability for the use of force by law enforcement.
Conway is arguing that police are being targeted for violence by the Black Lives Matter movement, and that police have suddenly become unsafe. I believe this to be untrue.
There is no evidence of some systematic change in officer safety because of a nonviolent movement for police accountability. The number of officers killed in the line of duty is likely to reach a historic low this year, even as the number of people killed by police appears to be twice as high as previous estimates.
Any attack on police should be denounced, of course, as the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement have done. “We’re targeting the brutal system of policing, not individual police,” the statement reads. “We seek a world in which ALL Black lives matter, and racial hierarchy no longer organises our lives or yours. This is a vision of love. As Black survivors of White supremacy, our hearts go out to all victims of violence.”
One might expect any unwarranted use of force by police to similarly be denounced. But that’s not what happens. Excuses and justifications rise instantly, unbidden, because — until now — the judgement of police officers has been considered above question.
While Conway argues that there are “clear avenues” to pursue complaints about police brutality through legal means, it is the central complaint of the Black Lives Matter movement that those legal avenues have been utterly ineffective. If they were effective, one might reason that disparities in the use of force would have been exposed and eliminated. Alas, no.
It is only now, under massive public pressure, that police officers are being charged with crimes for the kind of unnecessary use of force that has grown routine — and protected — in departments across America.
When he says that “each of those instances involved someone obstructing police officers trying to do their jobs,” he’s simply wrong. Tamir Rice — the child killed by police in Ohio — is merely the most obvious counter-example. Walter Scott was shot in the back by a cop, who planted evidence to avoid prosecution. Only the presence of a hidden bystander with cell phone video led to prosecution.
Are these isolated cases? Perhaps. But less isolated than the lurid murder of a police officer or the widely-reported refusal of services at a Buffalo Wild Wings that Conway refers to as evidence indicting the Black Lives Matter movement as “terrorists.”
Conway is arguing that police acted within policy. The Black Lives Matter movement questions the policies that lead to wide racial disparities in the use of force in the first place. Young black men in particular are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than young white men, according to a ProPublica analysis, though they are not close to 21 times more likely to be engaged in violent criminal activity.
I know Conway. I do not believe him to be a racist, and I have defended him against accusations of such in the past. One need not make sweeping accusations of overt racism to acknowledge the reality of this racial disparity in the use of force. So I understand how this critique of the use of force might rankle.
But it’s real. The numbers bear it out.
The key problem, in my view, is that law enforcement organizations meet these external critiques with less introspection and soul-searching than with deep defensiveness. The power of police ultimately rests with the public’s respect for its authority. The Black Lives Matter movement is a challenge to that authority, in a sense — it challenges police judgment in matters of life and death. I understand how threatening that might be.
Nonetheless, reverence for law enforcement can’t stand between the public and the absolute requirement of a democracy to hold government to public account. We do not — and shall not — live in a police state.
Accountability is not disrespect. Accountability is not dehumanizing, as he puts it. Accountability is not terrorism. Accountability is not hate. And while it may pain some police officers to hear this, accountability is “the structure of a civilized society,” not men with guns, even if they’re working for us.