Why we African Amer­i­cans have ‘the talk’ with our kids

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY PA­TRI­CIA TIMMONS-GOOD­SON, SPE­CIAL TO THE OB­SERVER Timmons-Good­son is a re­tired NC Supreme Court jus­tice.

Watch­ing the news re­port­ing the death of African im­mi­grant Amadou Diallo in 1999, my hus­band and I looked at one an­other in dis­be­lief. How could four po­lice of­fi­cers shoot 41 times at an in­di­vid­ual armed with only his per­sonal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion? My hus­band turned to our teenagers and asked, “What would you boys do if the po­lice stopped you and asked for your iden­ti­fi­ca­tion?” In uni­son the boys replied, “Daddy, I would give it to him.” My hus­band then in­quired, “How would you give it to him?” Our older son replied, “I would just give it to him.” The direc­tive from my hus­band was, “No, you wouldn’t. In­stead, you would in­form the of­fi­cer of the lo­ca­tion of the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, ask per­mis­sion to get it, and very slowly ob­tain your li­cense.” Such was “the talk” in our house.

To­day, we must add Jonathan Fer­rell, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Al­ton Ster­ling, and many oth­ers to the list of African Amer­i­cans killed in re­cent years by law en­force­ment in use of force in­ci­dents.

The United States Com­mis­sion on Civil Rights, on which I serve as vice chair, this month re­leased a re­port on po­lice use of force and mod­ern policing prac­tices. The re­port has the po­ten­tial to ig­nite a pro­duc­tive dis­cus­sion which will re­sult in some needed changes and saved lives.

As an African Amer­i­can mother of two sons and a for­mer state trial and ap­pel­late judge, I know the ben­e­fits of good policing. I re­spect the dif­fi­cult job law en­force­ment of­fi­cers do each day to keep our com­mu­ni­ties safe, of­ten at great per­sonal peril. I have also ob­served and felt the dis­trust my African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity has of law en­force­ment. I have seen how the lack of trust im­pairs re­la­tion­ships with law en­force­ment and seen how chal­leng­ing then it is for law en­force­ment to serve and pro­tect com­mu­ni­ties.

While the force used by law en­force­ment af­fects ev­ery­one, ex­ces­sive use of force ap­pears to tar­get com­mu­ni­ties of color. Many African Amer­i­cans per­ceive that our lives are not val­ued dur­ing in­ter­ac­tions with law en­force­ment. While the per­cep­tion is real, law en­force­ment agen­cies are of­ten not sys­tem­at­i­cally col­lect­ing data on po­lice use of force in or­der to pro­vide an ac­cu­rate as­sess­ment of the prob­lem. Yet, what can­not be de­nied is the es­sen­tial role trust plays in the “pro­tect and serve” func­tion as­signed to law en­force­ment.

African Amer­i­can par­ents are hav­ing “the talk” with their chil­dren about how to in­ter­act dur­ing po­lice en­coun­ters. The talk is rooted in par­ents’ le­git­i­mate con­cern that a po­lice en­counter could re­sult in the death of their child. The talk is im­por­tant, be­cause it is one of our few mea­sures that may pre­empt a deadly use of force en­counter.

The story is still be­ing writ­ten on use of force by our law en­force­ment. The Com­mis­sion’s Re­port tells part of the story. It de­scribes the re­peated and highly pub­li­cized in­ci­dents of po­lice use of force against per­sons of color and peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, lack of ac­cu­rate data, lack of trans­parency about poli­cies and prac­tices gov­ern­ing use of force, and lack of ac­count­abil­ity for non­com­pli­ance. All of these fac­tors fos­ter a per­cep­tion that po­lice use of force in com­mu­ni­ties of color and the dis­abil­ity com­mu­nity is unchecked, un­law­ful, and un­safe. I en­cour­age folks to read the re­port, be­cause it of­fers rea­son­able rec­om­men­da­tions to ad­dress the na­tional tragedy that is ex­ces­sive use of force.

TONY DE­JAK AP file photo

The US Com­mis­sion on Civil Rights has is­sued a new re­port on po­lice shoot­ings.

Pa­tri­cia Tim­mon­sGood­son

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