Take a look at the slide being presented in this story from The Baltimore Sun:
It reads: “If you are stopped, questioned, or detained by a law enforcement official: Approach him or her with respect. Retain your composure and conduct yourself in a mature manner. Avoid any action or language that might trigger a more volatile situation, possibly endangering your life or personal well-being.” (Emphasis mine.)
Read that last part one more time… “…possibly endangering your life or personal well-being.”
This was being told to a group of high school kids at a leadership program in Baltimore. It is interesting to me because of the language being used and the audience to whom it is being told. This is because I’ve been looking at the homicides that have occurred in Baltimore for the last 12+ years, and I’ve been keeping tabs on the crime and violence situation there as well. In all my research, high school children who are attending leadership programs are not very representative of the types of youths who would be criminals. With the exception of maybe the color of their skin and maybe the neighborhoods they live in, teenagers who want to be leaders or who take time to participate in these programs are nothing like the teenagers who get into trouble with the law.
Still, here we have a law enforcement official basically threatening them that they better “retain their composure” and “conduct themselves in a mature manner” because doing otherwise might endanger their life. This is a truism, sadly, because there is increasing evidence that Black men are killed by police — many times without a reason — at a disproportionate rate. That is, in the United States of America, in 2017, if you are a Black male, you have a much higher risk of being shot to death by police than if you were of any other race/ethnicity and gender.
Yeah, yeah, the apologists will show up and say that Black men are inherently violent, or some other lie being fed to them by White Nationalists/Supremacists. Or they’ll say that police officers have a right to go home to their families at the end of their shifts, which is a truism and something thrown around without much thought in order to stop a discussion in its tracks. It’s as if we can’t have an alternative discussion of, maybe the first reaction to a kid talking out of turn to an authority figure shouldn’t be a bullet to the body or the head. Maybe reaching for a driver’s license or to raise your pants while crawling on your hands and knees at gunpoint shouldn’t result in dying live on Facebook or being shot by a semi-automatic weapon several times like an animal.
Maybe. I’m just saying.
Of course, the other side of the coin is that not every interaction with the police is to harass you. Just because a cop or a detective wants to talk to you, it doesn’t mean that you’re the suspect of a crime or that your day/life will be ruined. Their jobs are hard enough already, especially in Baltimore, to make things harder by going to look for trouble. Are there bad apples in police departments? Yes, but they are outnumbered by men and women who want to do good and fight crime.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that relationships in Baltimore between police and residents are difficult enough as it is. An inconceivable number of cops were indicted for corruption and planting evidence this year. A homicide detective died of a gunshot wound to the head a couple of weeks ago while investigating in one of Baltimore’s most violence-stricken neighborhoods. (He was due to testify in the case of the corrupt officers.) And, since the 2015 riots, anecdotal reports state that “hundreds” of police officers have left the force in Baltimore with not very many replacing them. (Take it with a grain of salt.) So…
So what good does it do to tell bright young men and women participating in a leadership program — and showing their brightness by asking some very good questions of the law enforcement officials there — that they may be killed if they don’t act a certain way, if they dare not be mature?
I’m sure there was probably a better way to phrase this, and a better audience to whom this message should go out to. But that’s just me.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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