Charles E. Richardson

RICHARDSON: Collateral damage

There are about 800,000 full- and part-time law enforcement officers who are getting tired -- very tired. Every time they look around another one of their colleagues is being called into question for using deadly force against an unarmed man. If the officers are white and the victim is black, they are called everything from racist to much worse. After this last incident in North Charleston, South Carolina, the former officer, Michael Slager, is being called a murderer. A title he seems to deserve.

People from all walks of life are becoming wary of the very people who could be called to save their lives. Black people, who have always been wary of police, see these latest incidents as more proof that the only fair shot they’ll get is the same one received by Walter Scott, Slager’s victim: something in the back and deadly. I beg to differ.

I know how law-abiding officers feel. Let me be real. When a news flash pops up on my phone or tablet and people have been killed, I pray the shooter isn’t black. I bet American Muslims say the same prayer. And it’s the same prayer cops make when incidents such as last week’s occur (please don’t let it be another white cop/unarmed black man shooting).

Recently, journalists felt the same shame after the reporting of Sabrina Rubin Erdely and her editors at Rolling Stone about rape on the University of Virginia campus was found to have more holes in it than a colander.

I remember when Jayson Blair was found to be making stuff up at The New York Times in 2003. It was a double-whammy. Blair was a promising black reporter. Too often, real or imagined, black people have one chance to get it right and we carry the failures of those who came before us in the minds of those making hiring decisions.

That white hot spotlight of shame hits everyone in certain groups or professions because we’re all lazy. I took great interest in Catherine Meeks’ column last Wednesday. Her son had been pulled over by an Atlanta area police officer and she felt he was a victim of profiling. She’d like profiling to end, but quite frankly, that’s not going to happen. Why? As people, we’re just not that good.

Catherine looks for the humanity in all of us. While I can only speak for myself, I’m too lazy to do that -- and I bet you are, too. So instead of really looking for the person’s humanity as they approach me on the street, I profile. Is he a threat? Is he friend or foe?

Police officers make those kinds of decisions every day, but too many times lately they’ve been screwing up. I’m not going to dwell long on the myriad of wrongs done in the North Charleston situation. You’ve seen the video, I’d like to talk about what went right.

After officials initially backed the officer’s account, Slager was charged with murder and fired from the force when the video appeared. If we were in the Old West, they’d have another name for Slager. He shot Scott in the back five times.

Is there something in the South Carolina water? Last September, South Carolina Highway Patrol trooper Sean Groubert shot Levar Jones in the parking lot of a gas station outside Columbia in broad daylight. His supposed crime? Not wearing a seat belt. Fortunately, Jones survived. And just as in Slager’s case, the officer’s account didn’t match up with his own dash camera. Groubert was fired and faces assault and battery charges. Also last week, 25-year-old North Augusta Public Safety Officer Justin Craven was quietly charged with discharging a firearm into an occupied vehicle in the death of 68-year-old Ernest Satterwhite in 2014. Satterwhite had led the officer on a chase, but was killed in the driveway of his home. Yep, the officer is white, the victim unarmed and black.

Any profession can suffer collateral damage. Teachers get convicted of cheating in Atlanta and 3.7 million educators get blowback. Good officers, good teachers and good journalists, suffer from the imperfections of the bad. But in the case of the Rolling Stone article, skeptical journalists went after the story and found the holes. We need more skeptical law enforcement personnel, including district attorneys, who won’t blindly accept an officer’s version of events. We need stand-up principals with principles.

In all situations, we cannot curse the many for the sins of a few.

Charles E. Richardson is The Telegraph’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at 478-744-4342 or via email at crichardson@macon.com. Tweet @crichard1020.

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