This essay originally appeared at AlainaMabaso.com in October 2016.
Another unarmed black person has been killed by an American police officer, and in the case of Terence Crutcher, as has happened many times before, many conservative media outlets quickly report on the victim’s prior criminal charges, convictions, and arrest warrants.
People writing and promoting these articles may say they’re doing so in the interest of balance and telling the whole story, on a mission to combat a media narrative that reports on these killings as appalling, tragic events precipitated by racism, instead of police officers protecting themselves and their community from dire threats.
Reporting on Terence Crutcher’s killing by saying “Crutcher had a hefty criminal record before he was shot,” and listing the crimes he was convicted of, including larceny, a DUI, speeding, resisting arrest, drug trafficking, and failing to wear a seatbelt (“Behold the rap sheet”), and saying “take a look at the numerous open warrants for Crutcher,” and noting that PCP was found in his car (though a report on whether he was actually under the influence of any substances when he was killed was still pending at the time), is all oh so easy.
It’s also a ludicrous and revolting way to approach a killing by a police officer.
After Terence Crutcher was gunned down, why write “Crutcher had a hefty criminal record before he was shot”? Why write “Behold the rap sheet”? Why write “Take a look at the numerous open warrants for Crutcher”?
Maybe you write it because you would like the public to make the false logical jump that because we know this information now, reading it on the internet, that the police officer in question magically knew it as she approached, and that it instantly and appropriately informed her fear.
But really, you write it because, in the public mind, you want this information about Crutcher to mitigate or justify the fact that he was fatally gunned down in the street by a police officer who did not know anything about his record or arrest warrants as she approached.
If you believe that Crutcher’s past record should be publicly weighed against him now that he is dead, and cast in favor of the shooting officer’s exoneration, you believe that if people have been charged with or convicted of a crime in the past—any kind of crime at all—this is relevant to their killing at any time in the future, without charges, notification of their rights, arrest, a lawyer, a trail, a jury, a conviction, and sentencing.
So instead of saying, “Crutcher had a hefty criminal record before he was shot,” you could say, “Crimes like DUIs, resisting a police officer, speeding, or failure to wear a seatbelt might be crimes that deserve public capital punishment at an undetermined date.”
We can try making it a little more personal. Instead of saying, “Behold the rap sheet,” you could say, “If I have been convicted of a crime in the past, and a police officer guns me down in the street tomorrow, everyone should consider my past criminal record when they discuss my killing.”
Or, instead of saying, “Crutcher had a hefty criminal record before he was shot,” say, “If I’m ever convicted of a crime, and a police officer kills me at another time in the future, my death might be justified, no matter what I was doing when I was killed.”
Instead of saying, “Take a look at the numerous open warrants for Crutcher,” you could say, “Having an open arrest warrant means the suspect might deserve to be fatally shot by police officers at any time.”
Again, you can try a personal angle on it, too. Instead of saying, “Take a look at the numerous open warrants for Crutcher,” you could say, “If there is ever a warrant for my arrest, police might be justified in killing me at any time, whether or not they know about the warrant when they kill me.”
If you’re interested in data and statistics about the rates at which black and Hispanic people in the US face stops, searches, handcuffing, non-lethal violence, or killing at the hands of police, versus the rates at which white people face the same scenarios, this and this are edifying reads.
One study has found that the probability of being black, unarmed, and shot by police is almost three and a half times higher than the probability of being white, unarmed, and shot by police. About 13 percent of the US population is black. But black people make up about 30 percent of police shooting victims in cases where the victim’s race is known.
If you think Crutcher’s “rap sheet” is relevant to his killing, and those numbers above don’t make you feel sick, instead of saying, “Crutcher had a heavy criminal record before he was shot,” and “Behold the rap sheet,” you could try saying, “Any type of past crime might deserve public capital punishment at an unknown future date. Especially for black people.”
It wouldn’t stop the killings. But you would be honestly and consistently speaking your own logic.