Citizens Matter. Yeah, right. We all know what that means.
Citizens Matter is what the group opposed to reforming the Dallas Citizens Police Review Board is calling itself. So the name is contrapuntal to Black Lives Matter. Citizens Matter means White Lives Matter.
And, look, far be it from me to say white lives don’t matter. I’ve got one myself. Like to hang on to it a while longer. I’m just saying that it’s weird and almost laughable what kind of pretzels we twist ourselves into to avoid naming the real issue with law enforcement.
Race. In this country and in this city, the issue of race is still a big rip right across the fabric of law. Based on centuries of harsh experience, many if not most African-Americans view white cops as an enemy occupying force interested only in suppression and repression, not the law.
Based on the same centuries, too many white people hope that’s exactly what the cops are doing — protecting the white folks from scary, bad black people, whatever it takes. So at some point as we move toward what we all hope is progress, we all have to recognize that both of those attitudes extinguish any hope we can have to one day live under a shared and trusted rule of law.
I don’t think we’re ever going to get a lot of interest in a shared rule of law from Citizens (White Lives) Matter. They’re an uber-right wing-ding outfit that believes the United Nations is a global conspiracy against white people — the type of view you see represented more and more on the editorial page of The Dallas Morning News represented as mainstream conservatism.
I looked at Citizens Matter's website. They’re having a big kickoff dinner for 2019 with a theme of “Dinner is on your own” Jan. 24 at 5:45 p.m. at the El Fenix at Northwest Highway and Hillcrest. They are warning their constituency that all proposals to reform or strengthen the police review board are “supported by a FAR LEFT WING COALITION.”
Very implausibly linking efforts to reform the Dallas police review board with a United Nations environmental sustainability program called Agenda 2030, the website trumpets: “Don’t be fooled by liberal rhetoric. Expansion of CPRB is Agenda 21 (Agenda 2030) in action — a Trojan horse for takeover of the police department and creation of a police state.”
They wind up saying, “And we know you are antsy to know what is happening with our beloved Robert E. Lee statue, so we’ll bring you an update.”
Right. So we can agree, I assume, that those are the white folks. Theirs is the White Lives Matter agenda: Bring back Robert E. Lee, get rid of the U.N. and let the cops run wild.
The other side of the coin, however, can be just as troubling, even if it comes from a more legitimate place in history. In the call for a stronger review board, many voices in the black community have been making repeated reference to the case of Botham Jean, a 26-year-old black accountant shot to death in his own apartment Sept. 6 by a white Dallas police officer.
The Jean case hasn’t gone to trial. It hasn’t gotten close to trial. Nobody knows what happened. If the officer went to his apartment on purpose and shot him because he’s black, then she’s a monster of historic proportions. On the other hand, if she shot him in a terrible accident, it’s still terrible, but she’s not a racial monster.
When we still know nothing — when we are utterly incapable of answering the core question, accident or not — this is a crazy case on which to base a call for fundamental reform. It lacks merit not because something awful didn’t happen. Something awful did happen. We just don’t know what.
Take this lack of a focused knowledge of what happened. Marry it to a call for reform based on the case. What do you really have? Is it that people are stupid or they don’t care or they’re dishonest? It’s none of those.
What we really hear in the cry for reform based on the Jean case is that specifics of this case aren’t all that important when stacked against the long, morally untenable history of white police brutality against black people. In other words, the specifics pale before the history.
Not untrue. But not true.
The history is true. The reality now is not. Fairly recent rigorous examinations of the Dallas Police Department have consistently refuted the portrait of white Dallas cops as violently racist. Last year social scientists at the University of Texas at Dallas, the University of Texas School of Public Health and the University of South Florida analyzed 5,630 use-of-force reports in 2014 and 2015 to look for any pattern of white cops violently targeting minorities. They found none.
Their conclusions, published in the American Journal of Public Health, included findings of certain patterns by which all cops of all ethnic groups tend to get into scrapes more often with certain categories of people — drunks, for example. And use of violence does seem to be tied to officers’ age, experience and training, but that’s the same for officers of all ethnic backgrounds.
What they did not find was white cops targeting minorities for brutal or violent treatment (probably a disappointment to the White Lives Matter movement). So that calls into even greater question the constant invoking of the horrible Botham Jean case in the citizen police review board debate. Nothing is known to support the idea that the Jean case proves a pattern. Nothing is known to show that there is a pattern.
Yet the belief that there is a pattern (or ought to be) persists. In fact, that belief probably is the single biggest underlying element in this important debate, on both sides. One side wants to create a parallel justice system for cops because it has no faith in the legitimacy of the existing system. At the other extreme, the White Lives Matter people don’t even want justice. They want suppression.
So tell me something. While we pursue this debate, would it not help to stop and take a really serious deep dive into that underlying question of race and cops in Dallas? Let’s get it on the table. Do we have an out-of-control racist police department or not? And, to be fair to the folks who will be meeting soon at El Fenix, do we want one?
Between studies like the one referenced above, other analyses of racial profiling in traffic stops and additional recent work, there’s a pretty good body of knowledge already in the archives waiting to be scooped up. Before we do things that could risk running off all the cops in town, it might be worth investing in some fresh research.
Let’s answer the question. Do we have a violent racist police department or not? What is it we want to fix?
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The last thing we should allow is for agenda-seekers at either extreme to push us into changes that may not even be truly directed at the police department. What if people on both sides are using the cops as a fulcrum for grievances that actually don’t begin or end with cops? That’s a conversation worth having, too.
Racism is real. These times are explosively infused with race. But something about putting it all on white cops smells suspiciously 1980s to me. Have you looked inside a Dallas cop car lately? If all those white cops are racists, they sure must hate having to ride around all night with all those black and Hispanic cops.
It feels like what magicians call misdirection — making us look at the wrong thing so we miss the trick. If I want to understand the bitter temper of the times, I’m more inclined to look to Washington than inside a Dallas cop car.
Whatever. Let’s take a serious look at the underlying questions of race and police violence in Dallas before we take a sledgehammer to police discipline. At least we should know what we’re working on.