One Police Plaza

Some Honest Talk About Race

March 16, 2015

After the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Attorney General Eric Holder said the country needs to have an honest discussion about race.

That’s all well and good, but sometimes when the subject is a sensitive one, people choose to believe their own truths.

That includes the media.

Let’s start with Ferguson’s now iconic chant: “Hands Up. Don’t Shoot.”

It turns out “Hands up. Don’t Shoot” didn’t happen. Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager fatally shot by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, didn’t have his hands up when he was shot.

According to a report by the Justice Department, forensic evidence indicated Brown was running towards Wilson — Wilson said he thought to attack him. Forensic evidence also appears to support Wilson’s claim that Brown had reached inside Wilson’s car for his gun.

None of this is meant to ignore or minimize the country’s history of slavery, systemic racism and police brutality towards African-Americans all over America. In Ferguson, according the Justice Department report, the police targeted blacks for infractions not merely out of racism but to make money. Is it any wonder that many African-Americans will continue to believe that Brown had his hands up when he was shot?

But what about the media? More than any other institution, perhaps, the media might begin to confront our racial problems by careful explanation.

Take the New York Times’s front-page story last week about the resignation of Ferguson’s police chief, following the Justice Department report. Here’s how its story began.

“The City’s embattled police chief, the focus of bitter complaints after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager here last August, agreed to resign Wednesday, completing a near complete shake-up of the city’s most senior administration.”

Coming a week after Holder’s report, wouldn’t a more accurate beginning have been this: “The city’s embattled police chief, the focus of bitter complaints after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager who had apparently attacked him and reached for his gun … “

Now let’s turn to New York City and what appear to be Mayor Bill de Blasio’s race-based arrest policies. Take the NYPD’s new marijuana policy — issuing summonses instead of arresting people for possessing less than 25 grams of weed. The mayor’s justification: low-level marijuana arrests discriminated against African-Americans and Hispanics — since whites, who smoked more, were arrested less.

But the mayor left out an important fact. As a top police department official put it, more white people may smoke marijuana, but they aren’t arrested for possession because most of them smoke dope inside their living rooms.

Until the mayor changed policy, most arrests for marijuana possession occurred on the street or in apartment hallways, where neighbors saw kids hanging out and smoking dope — and called the police.

Last week, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton noted that seven recent homicide victims were killed while selling marijuana. Some media accounts made it out that Bratton blamed the use of marijuana for their deaths and mocked Bratton with the headline, “Reefer Madness.” Rather, he was blaming the marijuana-related commerce of the street. The seven were killed by robbers who knew they carried cash.

Some groups in the city also want to stop arrests for subway turnstile jumping, which, like marijuana arrests, they maintain is discriminatory. That is because most turnstile jumpers are black and Hispanic. These groups are implying that cops arrested them because of their race. The truth: the cops arrested them because they jumped the turnstiles.


Copyright © 2015 Leonard Levitt