Recently, the white manager of a Shaw’s Supermarket in Saco called the police after a black customer said he asked her to explain a policy that he was unaware of, then sent the police to his home with a no-trespass order, banning him from the store. The manager told the police she feared for her safety, according to a TV station account.
Who actually had more to fear in this situation? The customer, with his wife and his 19-month-old child, did nothing more than question a policy, and made no threats. But once the manager decided to call the police, the customer actually had more to fear, because police officers who feel threatened are legally allowed to use force, and they do against people of color at higher rates than against white people.
In recent years, the phenomenon of unarmed black men being killed by police officers has featured prominently in the news. Officers in such situations routinely claim they believe their lives are in danger, and the vast majority face no consequences. In fact, a recent Supreme Court decision strengthened the principle of “ qualified immunity” for police officers, making it even more likely they will escape accountability for using force, including deadly force, in situations that do not justify it.
How significant is the threat that police actually face on the job? How much of the threat they perceive is real and how much is based on race? A report released by the U.S. Department of Labor about deadly jobs in the U.S., covering the seven years ending in 2013, showed that police officers had the 14th highest rate for on-the-job deaths, lower than garbage collectors and roofers. In fact, the deaths of police officers, about half of which are due to violence or homicides, are at the lowest level they’ve been since 1960.
This does not mean that police do not face danger on the job, but recent voices claiming there is a “ war on cops” and calling for “ Blue Lives Matter” legislation to provide hate crime protections for police do not reflect the actual data on violence against police.
Meanwhile, implicit bias against people of color has been well-documented, and police officers are not immune. They can have a tendency to see black men as threats no matter the actual danger. Here in Maine, in February 2017, Portland police shot and killed a young man of color brandishing a BB gun, after less than 3 minutes of arriving at the scene, despite some 911 callers stating he held a BB gun. The officer “had reason to believe Chance David Baker was about to use deadly force,” according to the review by the Maine attorney general’s office, which investigates all uses of deadly force by police but has not found any of the 154 police shootings since 1990 unjustified.
The incident in the Saco Shaw’s is part of an increasing trend of white people calling the police to report people of color engaged in regular activities of daily life. The situations are so absurd it would be laughable if it weren’t for the very real threat posed to people of color once the police are called.
A recent post on the Black Girl in Maine Media website states it clearly: “Given how many stories we have from the past several years, along with video evidence and statistics going back decades, that show how much more likely police are to use force (deadly or otherwise) against people of color compared to white people, this is basically an act of violence. It is a form of assault that puts people of color at great risk.”
Those of us who are white need to take a good hard look at what is truly going on in situations where we “feel” threatened and ask ourselves how real the danger is and who is most likely under threat. The fact is, thanks to systemic racism, people of color in this country face much more harm from white people than we do from them. And police, with the legal sanction to use force when “feeling” threatened,” have a special responsibility to question their biases before reacting.
Karen Marysdaughter is co-coordinator of the Peace & Justice Center of Eastern Maine in Bangor.
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