18-year-old Paul O’Neal was shot in the back and killed while fleeing from police in Chicago recently– yes, shot in the back while running away. Chicago police have released video of the incident but conveniently, that little part of the actual shooting isn’t available because the camera belonging to the officer who fired the shot was off. All too often the cameras are off or “malfunctioning” during these critical moments and yes, we think it’s intentional. Every. Single. Time. Last year in Oklahoma a cop was was caught on a body camera saying to his colleagues, “turn it off” before they commenced beating a suspect who stole from a Dollar General. Yes, Dollar General. We believe every instance is just as shady. Why wouldn’t we? Our history with law enforcement leaves us no other choice.
Police in Chicago have done much worse. Some years ago a young Black Panthers organizer by the name of Fred Hampton was assassinated by the Chicago Police (with support from the FBI). Hampton was a dynamic leader on the verge of uniting the Panthers with street gangs in the city when he was killed. While asleep in his apartment next to his pregnant girlfriend, the police shot inside the apartment 90-99 times. Once the police entered, they shot him twice more in the head from point blank range. Predictably, the police claimed that there had been a shootout. After the police raid the apartment was left unsecured, allowing other Panthers to investigate and take video footage of the scene. Much like body cameras, their footage helped even the score. It was concluded that only one shot had been fired from the Panthers’ side and that was undoubtedly after the police had begun shooting. The police were willing to tell a horrific lie to cover up the assassination of a 21-year-old organizer so why wouldn’t they have been willing to turn off a camera also?
Fred Hampton’s assassination is not a current event but relatively recent, in historical terms. It is important because it reveals something about the larger culture of urban policing and the regard (or not) for black life in general. That culture must be remembered when we think of Laquan McDonald, another Chicago kid. At 17, McDonald was shot 16 times by police in October of 2014. He was walking away from the police. The cops claimed that McDonald lunged at them, causing fear for their personal safety. Further, the story was that McDonald died from one gunshot to the chest. That story did not match the execution that had in fact taken place. Without the agitation of a whistleblower the footage would have never come to light. McDonald’s death would have simply been one of many defined by a fictitious account by police. If a group of policemen willingly gave a false narrative after shooting a teenager who was walking away from them 16 times, why wouldn’t they turn off a body camera when convenient?
Hampton and McDonald are just two black men in one city. The problem is much larger, of course. The point is that for us, police credibility simply isn’t there. We have no reservoir of goodwill to extend. The good ‘ol “benefit of the doubt” cannot apply in these cases. When those cameras seemingly turn off all by themselves during critical moments or inexplicably malfunction in the most crucial of moments, we think it quite intentional. When you tell us differently, as the young people say, “you need more people.” Without question “good cops” will contend that these isolated actions unjustly color our view of the whole. In the first place, our experience is much broader and rooted than the isolated incidents that happen to be caught on camera. Secondly, it is up to the “good cops” to begin vigorously reporting the “bad” if they are to regain any credibility. When body cameras repeatedly contradict the accounts of “bad” cops and not statements from the “good cops” who witness the events in question, it’s hard to turn that corner.