Police and racism: it’s still a systemic problem
In 2014, Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke fired 16 shots into the body of Laquan McDonald. The 17-year-old was reportedly armed with a three-inch-blade and died on the way to the hospital. Former Fraternal Order of Police spokesperson Pat Camden was on the scene when reporters arrived.
“The boy lunged at police, and one of the officers opened fire,” Camden told reporters.
He would later acknowledge that this information was unsubstantiated, but the narrative had already taken root.
The following day, the Chicago Police Department released a statement claiming that McDonald “refused to comply with orders to drop the knife and continued to approach the officers.”
Other on-scene officers echoed this same false narrative, confirming that McDonald posed an immediate threat to Van Dyke and other officers.
Thirteen months later, Chicago officials released the dash-cam video of the shooting. At the time Van Dyke fired the first shot, McDonald made no threatening movements toward any of the officers. The teen did not pose an immediate threat to anyone.
The events surrounding McDonald’s death are all too familiar. He is not the first person of color to be so severely mistreated at the hands of the police. What’s new here, however, is Chicago’s reaction to the civic outrage that followed.
In December 2015, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel formed the Police Accountability Task Force to conduct a thorough review of the Chicago Police Department. The primary mission of the task force is to “lay the foundation for the rejuvenation of trust between the police and the communities that they serve by facing hard truths and creating a road map for real and lasting transparency, respectful engagement, accountability and change.”
Chicago’s most significant contribution to the issue of police misconduct is the city’s admission of racism. Last week, the task force released a 189-page report. In the report, the group affirms that the Chicago Police Department’s “own data gives validity to the widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.”
It’s in this report that we finally see acknowledgment of the systematic racism that exists in a government institution. Although Chicago — labeled the “false confession capital of the world” — has a long history of city-wide corruption, the task force’s report prompts us to take a look at the entire country’s racist past and the fragments of it that remain today.
In 2007, social psychology researchers from the University of Chicago and the University of Colorado at Boulder published a study that used computer simulations to investigate the influence of race on the decision to shoot someone. When non-black study participants read news stories about black criminals or were shown a disproportionate number of black targets with weapons, they tended to make more shooting errors against unarmed black targets.
Unfortunately, this implicit bias against black Americans is re-enforced daily. News outlets across the country over-represent black Americans as perpetrators of crime, but this doesn’t mean black Americans are committing a disproportionate amount of crime.
When law enforcement officials across the country are subject to implicit biases that threaten minority lives, primarily those of black Americans, systemic racism cannot be dismissed. The factors that reinforce these biases are the result of a country that still struggles with both conscious and unconscious racism.
Our distrust in an institution with a primary purpose to protect and serve cannot be resolved until we acknowledge race as a factor in police misconduct.
We need to admit that minorities are more likely than white Americans to be victims of abuse at the hands of law enforcement officials. This admission does not minimize the severity of police misconduct against white Americans — it targets the origins of the issue as a whole. From there, the rest of the country can follow Chicago’s lead toward more thorough and long-lasting reform.
Opinion columnist Sonja Aune is a Spanish senior and may be reached at [email protected]