As of Wednesday morning, the most recent story of a black man killed by police is that of Keith Scott in Charlotte. Scott was killed Tuesday and details of the incident are still scant. One of the few bits of information shared by officials and reported by media, however, is that Bentley Vinson, the officer who killed Scott, was also black.
As the country struggles to make sense of Scott’s death in relation to the estimated 193 other black people killed by police so far this year (and 306 in 2015), Vinson's race is being used by some to dismiss charges that Scott was the victim of racist policing. To reduce the role of anti-blackness in policing to merely the race of officers involved in fatal police encounters is misguided, however. It betrays a profound misunderstanding of the ways racism and anti-blackness work within systems, assumes that black people are free of anti-black bias and that black officers somehow transcend the police cultures in which they’re steeped.
What we know from police accounts is that four officers from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department were serving a warrant at an apartment complex when they say a man, later identified as Scott, emerged from his car with a handgun. Police say Scott then got back into his car before coming out for a second time with the gun, posing an “imminent threat.” At least one of officers fired at Scott, killing him.
Witnesses have claimed that Scott was unarmed. Officials insist that he was, however, and have shared little else about in the incident, including video footage from the body cameras some of the officers involved. Curiously, though, the CMPD released officer Vinson’s name to the media the day of the incident, an unusual act for a police department in the early phases of an investigation and something that often hasn’t been done in other high-profile police shooting cases. Of course, within no time, a photo sourced from the CMPD’s official Facebook page surfaced of Vinson—a black man—in uniform surrounded by other smiling black people and colleagues.
The caption from CMPD’s post of the picture reads, “An anonymous donor sent an ice cream truck into the Dillehay neighborhood. Some of the neighbors were still without electricity following the power outage. Metro division officers Vinson, Kennedy, Reiber and Pinckney served sweltering community members. One little girl said, ‘Well now I like the po-po!’”
It should go without saying, with all the nation has learned about policing in the past two years, but the race of the officer who killed Scott has little to no bearing on if Scott himself was killed because he was black. Given the complexity of our system of policing, it is as relevant to the matter as is whether or not that officer loves passing out ice cream.
Studies have shown that black people are not only capable of anti-black bias but that those who’ve been tested for racial bias are evenly split when it comes to pro-white and pro-black attitudes. Even more, research on the impact of police force diversity on officer-involved homicides has found no relationship between the racial representation of police forces and police killings in the cities they serve. In fact, one study revealed that the best way to predict how many police shootings might occur in a city is to look at the size of its black population. All of that without mentioning the troubling accounts from black police officers of the racism they experience on the force and the pressure they often face to engage in race-based policing in the communities they serve.
Ice Cube put it simply in 1988 on N.W.A.’s Fuck tha Police, “But don't let it be a black and a white one, ‘cause they'll slam ya down to the street top. Black police showing out for the white cop.” What a 19-year-old Cube understood nearly 30 years ago seems to still elude members of the media and even policymakers today. That's that there are a number of factors that impact how police officers—yes, even black officers—engage black civilians and suspects, the least of which is shared characteristics.
To be sure, America could benefit from more diversity in its police force, especially in communities of color. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 65 percent of the nation’s 3,109,000 law enforcement officers are white. That number jumps to 70 percent for patrol officers and nearly 80 percent for police supervisors. But, while we’re concerned with the race of cops, we should be as concerned with the culture, policy, and practices that guide their actions.
The issue at hand isn’t the personal feelings of cops who encounter black civilians but the deadly system of policing that criminalizes blackness, actively profiles black people, over-policies our neighborhoods as a matter of policy, and that uses force against us at three times the rate of whites. That is the ugly state of American policing and that truth doesn’t suddenly change when the boys in blue are black.