Black Lives Matter was once again back in the headlines this week after not one, but two questionable police shootings were recorded on video. The first, in Baton Rouge, LA, involved a 37-year-old armed black man named Alton Sterling. The second led to the death of Philando Castle in Minnesota. He, too, was armed at the time of his death.
As in previous cases, the available footage seems damning. And because this footage is all we have to go on, you can’t blame people for getting upset. When it comes to the war between emotions and logic, emotions will almost always win out. These videos – accompanied by exploitation propaganda – are much more powerful than a sober, boring analysis of the facts. Especially when those facts are rarely mentioned in the mainstream news media.
Another problem: Human beings are not good at focusing on things they can’t see. Crime is a great example of that. Most people tend to believe their communities are much more dangerous than they actually are. Why? Because local news broadcasts are inevitably focused on robberies, homicides, and other bleak stories of a society in rapid decay. “Nothing Bad Happened in Local Neighborhood Last Night” doesn’t exactly pop the ratings.
So it is with police shootings. If the networks frequently opened their nightly news programs with videos showing police officers carrying out their duties with professionalism, courage, and restraint – videos, in other words, that tell the truth about the vast (VAST) majority of law enforcement encounters – the Black Lives Matter movement would not exist.
Obviously, we should not give any individual police officer a free pass on murder, and we must demand expect that all lives – black, white, or other – matter in the eyes of justice. The shootings in Baton Rouge and Minnesota must be investigated transparently, and the outcomes of those investigations must reflect the evidence.
But we must forcefully resist any effort to turn any individual example of police misconduct into a condemnation of the criminal justice system, an attack on law enforcement officers, or a larger commentary on America’s racism. If there is a need for reforms, those needs should arise from the facts.
Not from shaky videos that say little about what happened in these specific instances, and say nothing about criminal justice in general.