This is despite studies to reimagine policing and President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. There has been training and retraining, the implementation of body cameras on police, a rush to bring more Black and brown cops onto forces. All this and … nada.
I called Gary Sparks, who is the first Black police chief of Douglasville. Last time we talked, it was a month after Ferguson because the west metro Atlanta town got the notoriety of appearing on a New York Times map labeled: “The Race Gap in America’s Police Departments.”
Douglasville was listed as a city having one of the biggest differentials between the percentage of whites in its population and on its police force. There was a 59-point gap between the police force that was then 91% white and a population about 32% white. Today, the 90-officer force is 29% Black and 6% Hispanic, said Sparks, who became chief in 2016.
The Douglasville police command staff in 2014. Front Row from left: then-Deputy Chief Gary Sparks, then-Chief Chris Womack and Capt. Darren Shaw. Back Row from left: Maj. Greg Graff, then-Capt. Zach Ardis and then-Capt. J.R. Davidson. (BILL TORPY / BTORPY@AJC.COM)
Sparks said his department has employed some of the efforts that supposedly will help cut down violent interactions. “We push the servant mindset of law enforcement,” he said, rather than the warrior mentality that took hold in some departments.
He didn’t want to venture a guess as to why that 1,000-civilian fatality figure has remained constant. “You have to look at each situation,” he said. “We try to train our officers that time is on their side, to be empathetic and be in control of a situation.”
Often it’s difficult to remain in control. Early Sunday, his officers were in a chaotic situation after a man drove off from a Douglasville police road checkpoint, shot an Austell canine officer who was assisting in the subsequent foot chase, and then shot himself as police closed in.
The idea of diversifying a department is that you want to have a force that resembles the demographics of the community it polices. A 2019 article by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted that DeKalb County’s force roughly matched the county’s demographics of 53% African American residents and 30% white.
A review of shootings between 2010 and 2016 found that DeKalb cops shot 26 civilians, all but one of them Black. It turns out that the race of the officers shooting them was pretty much 2-1 Black, or fairly close to the breakdown of the department.
I called former DeKalb Public Safety Director Cedric Alexander, who once headed the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and served on Obama’s task force.
“You’ll likely see most of the shootings in South DeKalb; it’s an African American community and the force is majority African American, so what’s the odds of you being shot by an African American officer?” he asked. Pretty good, I suppose.
“There are depressed areas. In those areas you see more crime,” Alexander said. That creates demands for more patrolling, he said, and then “there’s the likelihood of more engagement.”
But, he added, “It’s not police interaction, it’s the quality of those interactions. In communities with high crime, you’ll get more calls. The problem with that is you have police going into those areas where people are suspicious.”
“Policing has lost so much of its legitimacy. You can have a bank robber busting out of a bank with gun in hand and ‘Bam!’ police shoot him and you’ll have some people saying, ‘The police were wrong.’ That’s where we are,” Alexander said.
As to the 1,000 deaths a year, he said, “You have to take a microscopic look at the cases. That number suggests there’s 1,000 innocent people shot and they are Black.” But he knows that is not the case.
Michael Wilson, right, talks with community organizer Anthea Yur Kokoro during a rally on April 18, 2021, in Minneapolis at the site where George Floyd was killed. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Credit: Julio Cortez
Credit: Julio Cortez
According to The Washington Post’s accounting, of the 6,223 people fatally shot by police thus far since 2015, 1,499 (or 24%) were Black, 2,885 (or 46%) were white and 1,052 (or 17%) were Hispanic. The U.S. Census Bureau says 13% of Americans are Black, 60% are white 18.5% are Hispanic.
The data tries to catch trends. Of those killed, 3,625 had guns, 1,069 had knives and 402 were unarmed. Of the unarmed, 33% were Black, 42% were white and 18% Hispanic. That means about 22 unarmed African Americans are shot to death by police each year and 27 whites. It’s not the huge number some people think it is. But it is sad.
In a study of shootings by Philadelphia police, the authors concluded that unarmed Black suspects were “most likely to be the subject of a threat perception failure” by police, and unarmed white suspects “were the most likely to be involved in a physical altercation” with police.
Mawuli Davis has become one of the city of Atlanta’s top lawyers handling police shooting cases. He said it’s not whether the cops are African American or white or if they are trained or have cameras.
“We’re tinkering around the edges of this issue,” he said. “This is not just a policing problem. It’s an American cultural problem.”
He is now representing the family of Matthew Williams, a Black man who was having a mental breakdown when he was shot to death last week by DeKalb police at his condo.
Williams was walking around outside with a knife and then threatened police when they arrived. The officer continually beseeched Williams to drop the knife. “Please, sir, I’m begging you,” the officer said. “You’re a Black man. I’m a Black man. You don’t have to die today.”
Williams went into his condo and was killed after the police pushed their way in. Davis said he does not believe they would have done that with a white suspect.
“We devalue our own lives because of the system in which we live,” said Davis, adding that his thoughts on the subject are not just meant for cops. “It’s also the message for Black middle-age teachers in a Black school district.”