The Associated Press reported the following today on the use of Tasers by police in Houston:
Houston police officers have used Tasers more on black suspects than any other group of individuals, according to a city study released Monday.
Of 1,417 Taser deployments by officers between December 2004 and June 2007, nearly 67 percent were used on black suspects, according to an audit conducted for the city by a team of criminology, statistics and mathematics experts. About 25 percent of Houston's population is black.
The audit was requested by Houston Mayor Bill White in 2006, after several high-profile incidents. That year, Houston Texans offensive lineman Fred Weary was shocked during a traffic stop [for more on this incident, see the blog Tasered while Black], and an officer called to quiet a noisy music club shocked musicians and concertgoers. The latter incident was videotaped and widely viewed on YouTube.A common white response to such race-related statistics would be to question them, and/or ask for more statistics, instead of seeing them as further evidence of racist tendencies among police. For instance, I've heard white folks say things like this: "Well, how many of the people that the Houston police deal with are black, compared to how many are white? If they deal with more crime-committing black people, then of course they're going to Taser more blacks than whites."
Such responses exhibit a common white reluctance to see the police from a different perspective--to see, that is, that others often have good reasons not to trust the police as much as most white folks do. In addition, the immediate assumption that those being Tasered are committing crimes, rather than being subjected to unwarranted harassment, is another common white tendency in regards to the police.
On the other hand, non-white responses to such police matters often come from a more experienced understanding of the following facts: America is still a racist society, and one that particularly demonizes and targets black men; the police are rarely exempt from common racist feelings, thought, and behavior; and the police therefore abuse non-white suspects more often than they do white ones. A common non-white response also often comes from more contact with police--and not necessarily contact that they've brought on themselves, given common racist police tendencies aside from higher incidents of Tasering, such as the myriad forms of racial profiling.
As I've written before, white people are more likely than members of other racial groups to trust the police. Study after study shows that the common police motto, "Protect and Serve," tends to apply much more readily to members of white communities than to those of non-white ones. It simply follows that if white people are abused less often by police, they're also less likely to suffer the common and easily abused control method of Tasering.
It may come as no surprise, though, that in response to the Taser study released yesterday, Houston police contend otherwise. As the AP story continues,
Houston police said their use of Tasers was not tied to race, but to a person's behavior.
"It's not a racial issue. A Taser device is no different from a radar gun. It's race neutral," Executive Assistant Police Chief Charles McClelland said after the Houston City Council meeting during which the report was released.While this "executive assistant police chief" seems to recognize some sort of problem with the higher incidence of Taser use for black suspects, he also seems almost oblivious to the possibility (let alone the reality) that police officers themselves act in racist ways. Notice how instead, his emphasis is on, bizarrely enough, the "race neutral" character of the Taser device itself.
Nevertheless, another statistic cited in the AP article suggests quite strongly, to me at least, that racism within the minds of the police is indeed a causal factor here: "The study found that black officers were less likely than white or Hispanic officers to use Tasers on a black suspect."
While America's demonization of black men can instill racist feelings, thoughts, and reactions in black minds as well, the fact that black officers use Tasers less often on black suspects likely stems from a tendency to see more of oneself in a black person who's about to be subjected to the dance of 50,000-volts. A black police officer is likely to empathize more readily, that is, with someone who seems more like him or herself. And is thus likely to not suffer from the lack of empathy for black people that's instilled in non-black people by white supremacist America.
I should also add that Tasering is no mere inconvenience. Aside from feeling like, as one recipient put it, "the most profound pain I have ever felt," it can also kill you. That's what it did to twenty-year-old Jarrel Gray.
Jarrel died after being Tasered last year; his family's lawsuit over his wrongful death was recently dismissed by a judge. On the same weekend that Jarrel died, two other Taser victims also died in the United States--Christian Allen, in Florida, and Jesse Saenz, in New Mexico. I don't know if the fact that none of these three men was white is statistically significant, but it does seem bitterly symbolic.*
In response to the Houston study's evidence of racial disparities in Taser "deployment," City Controller Annise Parker, "whose office oversaw the audit," said this to the Associated Press: "We have to spend more time in determining why these racial and ethnic differences exist. . . Simply ignoring them or saying they are not significant is not going to make them go away."
Yes, by all means, Ms. Parker, let's arrange for yet another study. Let's appoint yet another "commission" to determine why these supposedly mysterious differences exist.
This all makes me wonder--is it so difficult to see, and to say, that the pervasive racism that makes life easier for white people also accounts for racial disparities in this common and often deadly form of police abuse?
*According to Amnesty International, "More than 150 people in the USA have now died after being struck by tasers since June 2001, 61 in 2005 alone." Over 11,500 law enforcement agencies use Tasers.