Friday, December 12, 2014

It's Only A Short Step From Police Killing Dogs to Police Killing Black Males

Before you go getting all offended by the title of this post, hear me out.

Way back when, before the choke hold death of a black man in New York, before the gunning down of a black almost-college-freshman in Ferguson, Missouri; before the fatal shootings of young black boys in a WalMart and Cleveland playground. . .

Before all those tragic examples of what happens when police officers view some citizens as less than human, there were repeated accounts of tragic encounters between cops run riot and family pets, specifically family dogs.

Indeed, the day that the killing in Ferguson grabbed the spotlight, I was planning this post in response to the increasingly common news stories of law enforcement officials gunning down dogs who were doing nothing more than protecting the residences of their human families.  These were not junk yard dogs, or drug dealer dogs, or attack trained dogs.  These were dogs who happened to be in the residences entered or yards traversed by cops pursuing alleged criminals.  The dogs had the audacity to growl and bark at uniformed officers who entered the dogs' domains, domains that their human families relied upon them to protect and give notice of intruders.

In each and every case, the dogs were deemed "dangerous" by the trespassing officers and shot dead.  Never mind that the houses  belonged to law-abiding citizens whose yards the suspects just happened to cut through while fleeing capture.  Or, in other cases, the houses belonged to law-abiding citizens whose homes were erroneously targeted in no-knock warrant sweeps that had would-be stormtroopers crashing through front doors, to be challenged by the resident canis lupus famillaris.

Now, I have seen dog fights.  When a new male collie challenged our alpha female collie, I could not believe that the two beasts battling it out in front of me were the same beautiful, tame, friendly pets who followed us around and played with us like the big, overgrown puppies they were.  Jaws opened to improbable widths.  Fangs slashed with dizzying speed.  Roars that had no relation to typical barks or growls thundered from throats raised high above the ground as the challengers jockeyed for position and a maiming bite.

Three times I was witness to the savage ferocity of these cousins of the wolf.  The contests ended only when our human pack leader exerted his authority during the third fight, firmly ensconcing the female above the male in pack hierarchy.

These fights between our Lassie lookalikes made clear that every dog is both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  In every playful, fuzzy puppy romping with its human family lurks the cunning, fierce, dangerous protector of the pack.  To a dog, every human who has not been accepted as a friend by its family is a threat to the pack.  Every human who enters the pack's domain without permission presents a danger to be kept at bay.

In short, dogs can be fiercesome creatures, capable of eliciting the most primitive response of fear with nothing more than a curled lip, flattened ears, raised hackles, or throaty growl.

While I can appreciate that a cop confronted by a protective dog can feel threatened, too often it is the dog who pays the price for a cop's arrogant -- yet wrongful -- fear-induced assertion of power in the dog's domain.  And too often, the cop gets away with slaughtering the family pet, because no one has told them they may not kill dogs with impunity, with no repercussions, and no accountability.

Dogs are, after all, just dogs.


Those first ten amendments set forth in the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution requiring warrants, prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures, and protecting against cruel and unusual punishment don't apply to dogs.


Do you see where I'm going here?

When a cop adopts a "shoot first and ask questions later" attitude in dealing with black males, two things are going on deep within that human's psyche.  First, as in dealing with a protective dog, the cop is reacting on a visceral level to a whole host of fear cues.  Sometime, somewhere, somehow, the cop learned to associate black males with imminent, mortal danger.  Second, the cop is reflecting a societal norm in this country that ranks blacks somewhere way, way below Caucasian males in the right to be treated with respect; to be protected by the full panoply of due process rights set forth in the Constitution; and to be deprived of life or liberty, only after a judge or jury -- and not some random individual or lynch mob or cop -- has found sufficient evidence of an actionable offense.

But something else is going on as well.  Just as there has been no national consensus that the indiscriminate killing of family dogs by marauding cops must end, there has -- until Ferguson -- been no national outcry against cops treating citizens of the United States as enemy combatants and deaths of those citizens as collateral damage in the war on crime.

As news coverage of the Ferguson riots demonstrated, the militarized police forces terrorizing minority neighborhoods are as far removed from the homespun wisdom of a Sheriff Office run by Andy Griffith, or a Sparta, Mississippi, Police Department run by Carrol O'Connor, as the Hubble telescope is from the Earth's atmosphere.  The Constable On Patrol (COP) who used to diffuse sticky situations with nothing more than words and a whistle has been replaced by ex-Army, ex-Special Forces, ex-Marine veterans-turned-cops, whose attitudes about perceived enemies are as much a barrier to communicating with the people they are supposed to "protect and serve" as the storm trooper gear they don at the least provocation.

Life has begun imitating art when it comes to policing in America.  All those movies and television shows that have helmeted, body armoured, jackbooted SWAT Teams spilling out of massive personnel carriers, smashing through front doors with battering rams, and tossing flash-bang grenades through windows have become the civics classes for too many law enforcement officials.  The policing reality painted by Hollywood writers has replaced more than 200 years of due process law that forbids exactly the kind of mayhem being loosed upon our citizenry, especially our black, male citizenry.

It is time our police return to school to be reminded that this country was founded by people who fought a Revolutionary War to assure that they could enjoy the same rights and privileges that officers routinely promise to preserve and protect during their swearing in ceremonies.  A different generation, in a different Civil War, fought to assure that those rights and privileges would be enjoyed by all black citizens.  And an entire movement was launched in the 1960's to demand the immediate adherence to the series of constitutional amendments adopted after the Civil War, specifically intended to guarantee those rights for all citizens regardless of race.

As Section 1 of the 14th Amendment makes clear:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Police officers, whether employed by a city, state, or federal law enforcement agency, are representatives of "the State" when acting in their official capacity.  When they kill a citizen, or detain a citizen, or destroy the property of a citizen without first adhering to the requirements of due process, those officers violate the Constitution and, thus, their oath of office.

It is past time that our law enforcement officials learn exactly what "rights" they have sworn a duty to preserve, and stop killing the citizens they have been entrusted to protect.  And while they are at it, perhaps police officers can learn that it's not OK to deprive citizens of their property, i.e., the family dog, merely because it is more expedient to kill a perceived threat and, after all, a dog is just a dog.