A line of police officers stand in the dark on a Charlotte, North Carolina, highway. They look like an occupying force with their helmets and face shields and various weaponry strapped all over their armored clothing. A large bus illuminates them with its headlights. The front of the bus declares in bright lights: “NOT IN SERVICE”.
It’s as if these police responding to protests of Tuesday’s shooting death of Keith Scott are carrying with them a lighted banner that declares what black Americans already know: they are not in service. Not for us.
It’s the message that police have always been sending black Americans. Blacks make up about 13% of the US population, and yet accounted for 27% of the approximately 1,146 people killed by police in 2015. “Not in service” is the message we got when Tamir Rice was killed, when Freddie Gray was killed, when Eric Garner was killed. This was the message we got when Terence Crutcher was killed this week while asking for service. We understand that if our police force really does exist to protect and serve, it does not exist to protect and serve us.
When I or any of my black friends discuss issues of police brutality online, we receive a common response: “Well see what happen next time you need the police and they aren’t there to protect you.” But we’ve already seen what happens – it’s our current reality.
Terence Crutcher needed the police when he was killed by them. Veteran Anthony Hill needed the police when he was killed by them. Elliott Williams needed the police but he was instead taunted by them as he slowly died in a jail cell without food and water. Quintonio LeGrier needed the police and had called them three times when he and his neighbor were killed by them. We already live in a world where we can’t call the police when we need them, because we know that there is a good chance that we or our loved ones will be killed for it.
The police have become even more open in their declarations that they are not here to serve us. They have threatened not to provide police protection to athletes who dare protest police brutality by not standing during the national anthem. They stopped doing their jobs in New York when the mayor dared to question why so many black men have died by their hands. In Seattle, police demanded higher pay and more benefits before they would start implementing measures to stop abusing the public. In West Virginia, they have started firing police officers for not killing black men. The message has been simple: we are not in service for black people, and if you question us, we won’t be in service for you either.
And as grieving black people gathered in the streets to protest yet another killing of a black man by police officers, police in North Carolina made it perfectly clear, once again, that they are not here for us. Charlotte police say Keith Scott was armed when they encountered him while trying to execute a warrant on somebody else. Scott’s family insists that he never carried a gun and was in fact afraid of them. They say that Scott was simply reading a book in his vehicle while waiting for his son’s school bus to arrive. Those who are served by the police may be more likely to believe them over Scott’s family.
But those of us who are not served by the police remember that the gun reportedly found on Che Taylor was traced to a sheriff’s deputy. We remember that officer Michael Slager was caught planting a weapon on the body of Walter Scott after he was shot in the back while running away. We remember that Samuel DuBose was politely interacting with police during a traffic stop when officer Ray Tensing shot him in the head and then immediately claimed to his superiors that DuBose had tried to run him down. We remember that officers claimed that 19-year-old Laquan McDonald was threatening them with a knife, until video revealed that he was running away from officers when he was shot 16 times.
We’ve always known the police are “not in service” – they just aren’t even bothering to hide it anymore. Black Americans know that the police don’t serve us. But who do they serve? And if they serve you, is this really what you asked for?