Once again: Police cruelly killed someone Black under the guise of their self-governing authority

Since I read about a sheriff’s deputy who, according to civil rights attorney Ben Crump, went to investigate a disturbance at the wrong apartment in Fort Walton Beach in the Panhandle, then shot and killed 23-year-old U.S. Airforce Senior Airman Roger Fortson, I have seethed with anger.

That anger is never far from the surface because as a Black man in America, every police murder, killing, assault or brutality towards any Black person reminds me that African Americans are generally seen by law enforcement as enemies of the state.

And so once again, in yet another sickening and infuriating case of murder, excessive use of force, power and control, the police have cruelly killed someone Black under the guise of their self-governing authority.

Okaloosa County Sheriff Eric Aden disputes Crump’s assertion that the deputy had arrived at the correct apartment but with Fortson alone in his apartment, according to Crump, what would have been the cause for the disturbance, described as an argument?

To his credit, Aden, while offering his condolences, said the family had his word that if the shooting is found to be unjustified their son’s name will be fully vindicated and justice will be served.

Civil rights attorney Ben Crump. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Crump — who is representing the family — said Fortson was Facetiming with a friend when he heard movement outside his front door. He looked at least twice, saw no one and went to get his legally owned handgun. Okaloosa County Sheriff’s deputies – who were responding to a disturbance – demanded that he open his door, and seeing him holding a gun, shot him, Crump said in a press conference.

One question I have, is unlike George Zimmerman, wasn’t Fortson standing his ground? (Zimmerman killed teen Trayvon Martin, whose shooting death in Central Florida by a neighborhood watch volunteer in 2012 caused a nationwide firestorm.)

In a video released by Aden, Fortson opened the door with his gun pointed to the floor (standing his ground), the deputy in front immediately opened fire, hitting him six times, then and only then saying “drop the gun.” Not unexpectedly, law enforcement voices and other legal experts are quick to say that Fortson answering the door holding a gun makes it indisputable that the deputy acted in self-defense after having to make a “split-second, life-or-death decision.”

Screenshot. Roger Fortson. Scripps News; Pensacola News Journal; U.S. Airforce.

But I still ask, wasn’t Fortson standing his ground?

We keep hearing about cops receiving de-escalation training but far too often, that isn’t applied when they confront Black men women and children. The casual, random killings of primarily unarmed African Americans in Florida and the United States isn’t an aberration or a one-off.

It is woven tightly into the fabric of the United States.

This poison is woven into the DNA of law enforcement, from slave catchers to Jim Crow enforcers, to blood thirsty murderers, those putting their knees into necks, and turning a no-knock warrant into a justified killing.

A clear and present danger to African Americans

Racism and discrimination courses through the veins of America’s legal system and Black people know it from more than 400 years of agonizing experience.  America’s laws have rarely been applied equally and mainstream America has weaponized the legal and criminal justice infrastructures in ways that disproportionately murder, punish and incarcerate Black people.

Throughout America’s history, law enforcement has proven to be a clear and present danger to African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos and other non-white and marginalized people. Proof? Despite killing thousands of people every year, few of the cops have ever been charged or convicted of the murders they commit.

Most Americans don’t see police brutality, abuse or the scourge of mass incarceration as a five-alarm fire requiring immediate attention.

But the result of the oppressive behavior of law enforcement is decimated communities, destroyed families, indescribable anguish and heartache and families of those killed and injured left by police and society to pick up the pieces.

I have had a number of police encounters which have soured me on cops, sowed a deep distrust of them and created a profound skepticism around the fickle and racist nature of America’s laws. Not only is this feeling driven by these encounters, but it is also a recognition that nationwide, “a deep mistrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color. Some of this is a result of the legacy of racial discrimination in this country.”

I think a significant part of the hostility that exists between Black people and the cops who purportedly serve them, stems from the roots of modern policing. What’s unspoken or ignored is the long, perverse, bloody and sordid history of racism, police brutality, excessive force and violence that cops have always visited on African Americans.

Slave catchers, precursors of modern police, began in the 1700s and by the 1900s, the NAACP explained, local municipalities began to establish police departments to enforce local Jim Crow laws in the East and Midwest. Local municipalities leaned on police to enforce and exert excessive brutality on African Americans who violated any Jim Crow law (which) continued through the end of the 1960s.

The deputy who fired the shot that killed Fortson has been put on paid administrative leave. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating the killing but if the past is any indication, he will likely never be charged, much less convicted. This messaging only reinforces the lack of regard law enforcement has for Florida residents who do not look like them.

Data shows that the decision by police officers to use lethal force breaks down along racial lines.

In 2023, according to Police Violence Report, at least 1,247 people were killed by police. Police killed more people in 2023 than any other year in the past decade.

About 96% of those killed by police in 2023 died after being shot. However, officers were charged with a crime in only one in 10 of these cases, meaning that a mere 1% of all cops who kill a human ends up being tried and/or convicted. In addition, statistics also show that African Americans were more likely to be killed by police, more likely to be unarmed and less likely to be threatening someone when killed.

Year in and year out, Black Americans were and are also killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans, according to The Washington Post database analysis. African Americans comprise 14% of the population but are killed by police at more than twice the rate of White Americans. Hispanic Americans are also killed by police at a disproportionate rate.

If America desired to change this deadly paradigm, it would be done. But race complicates everything. It’s never Black and white. The U.S has never come to terms with or sought to confront, address and correct the country’s original sin: slavery. Which is why in this era of hyper-conservative backlash and repression, the answer shown by Gov. Ron DeSantis, his legislative cronies and the assortment of far-right identity extremists, is to ignore the obvious and shower law enforcement with adoration and cash.

Rooting out the rot?

Police squad car lights. (Stock photo by Oliver Helbig/Getty Images)

DeSantis has put his money where his mouth is. For example, he signed the interestingly named ‘Framework for Freedom’ budget for FY 2023-24 which has tucked in it more than $200 million in “vital” investments – salary increases, bonuses and enhancements to officer safety – in public safety.

African Americans and their allies have not taken this assault against their right to exist laying down. They have fought and fought hard, but they haven’t gotten nearly the amount of help they need and deserve.

In 2024, DeSantis should be putting mechanisms in place to strengthen Florida’s myriad communities of color. DeSantis should be introducing meaningful, widespread reforms and most importantly, his administration should be rooting out the rot that is so much a part of police departments across the state.

But he’s not. Unfortunately given DeSantis’ racial animus, his governing record and past comments, Black Floridians know he will never use the considerable power entrusted in him to level the playing field and hold cops accountable.

Be that as it may, there is a critical need for oversight and the investigation and prosecution of racial profiling, and cops’ widespread abuses of power, including the use of excessive force, brutalizing protestors, innocent bystanders and others exercising their constitutional right to free speech and the right to hold their ground.

But robust oversight is notably absent in the Sunshine State.

Asking law enforcement to police itself is like inviting wolves into the henhouse. It never ends well. As a consequence, that responsibility of righting these grievous wrongs falls on the caring public.

George Floyd, in the hour he died. Screenshot: bystander video broadcast by CNN

One of the biggest demands that came out of the George Floyd protests was defunding the police. Criminal justice reformers and abolitionists pushed back against the idea that defunding is a horrible, counter-intuitive concept.

Defunding, they contend, never meant closing police departments and turning off the lights. Instead, it would be a mechanism to reallocate some of the massive amounts of money mayors and city and county councils shovel at law enforcement such as the $10 billion given to the New York Police Department.

Not only should budgets be trimmed because crime in the U.S. has been declining and continues to fall, but because the larger community would also benefit if money is redirected to healthcare, schools, mental health, affordable housing, social work counselors, education and social services. That happened in Los Angeles.

Efforts to establish defunding nationwide faltered after 2020, and thanks to subsequent rightwing lies and attacks, has been largely discredited.

Thus, the scourge of police-involved murders continues unabated.

Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper says it’s time to look not just at a few bad apples, but the entire barrel. He believes the way police departments interact with Black communities is proof that the entire criminal justice system and policing is broken.

Stamper says American policing’s past ties to the enslavement of African Americans means that the institution was ill-conceived from the start. Presently, he explained, police forces “have evolved into a paramilitary, bureaucratic, organizational arrangement that distances police officers from the communities they’ve been sworn to protect and serve.”

He describes most of America’s 18,000 police departments’ organizational structures as anachronistic, paramilitary and rigidly bureaucratic which “produces a workplace culture that serves as a breeding ground for racism, corruption, sexual predation, brutality, unjustified lethal force, and excessive militarism.”

Reformers and activists have worked from a palette of solutions and tactics including — increasing pressure on prosecutors to prosecute killer cops; electing reform-minded district attorneys, states attorneys and judges; implementing wide-reaching reform agendas and convincing the public of the need to radically overhaul the police/criminal justice/legal paradigm.

I see no evidence that this country has the political will or desire to sanction these changes, so I offer a very different solution: Burn the whole thing down and rebuild new paradigms brick-by-brick.

Build humane, truly colorblind systems that are fair, unbiased, rooted in justice and truly protect and serve all Americans.

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