Many of us are just hearing about the police shooting that claimed the life of 19-year-old Zachary Hammond on July 26.
The news lands with that familiar, convulsive ache that the death of young people brings. That a year of police-involved killings has given us.
The teenager, on a first date, was stopped in the parking lot of a Seneca, S.C., Hardee’s during a drug bust, and the officer contends he fired in self-defense as Hammond tried to run him over. His 23-year-old date was charged with possession of 10 grams (.35 ounces) of marijuana. And it feels like a life gone over so much nothing.
Yet Hammond’s killing, under cloudy circumstances — a police report never mentions the fatal gunshots — has not sparked national protests. It has not pricked us the way Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Brandon Jones, Eric Harris and Freddie Gray did. The way the killing of Samuel DuBose most recently and under the most similar circumstances did. (DuBose was also behind the wheel; the Cincinnati officer who shot him alleged that DuBose was dragging him as he was taking off.)
Hammond’s family contends that the unequal outrage is because Hammond is white.
“It’s sad, but I think the reason is, unfortunately, the media and our government officials have treated the death of an unarmed white teenager differently than they would have if this were a death of an unarmed black teen,” the family’s attorney, Eric Bland, told my colleague Abby Phillip this week. “The hypocrisy that has been shown toward this is really disconcerting.”
Unlike the high-profile cases, no video has surfaced, so there is no objective standard of truth to judge the shooting against. That aside, says Michael Jenkins, a University of Scranton community policing expert, the family’s assertion about race has merit.
“The reason why the death of black citizens by police are much more likely to get attention is simply because of the history of policing in the U.S. This happens time and time again,” Jenkins says. What whites are “not understanding is that these individual reactions that receive so much attention are speaking to a much longer history and a much deeper feeling of injustice that is even presently felt by certain groups.”
For those who don’t fear it, experience it or hear about it firsthand, he says, “these cases are just blips and outliers.” For folks in the affected communities, they feel like standard operating procedure.
Racism and unconscious bias result in a disproportionate number of black deaths at the hands of police, activists contend. According to a Washington Post database, blacks account for 25 percent of people shot dead this year by police.
But the Hammond death is important because it speaks to the broad issue of how police use deadly force, Jenkins says. “In cases where they are doing it excessively, that is an issue that in some respects is beyond race.”
It’s so often about that deeper, gut-level fear of danger that colors too many interactions police have with citizens. About the officers’ icy feeling that this could go badly, and they won’t make it home.
This should be part of the national conversation, Jenkins says. It should be “about training and the reflexive assumption of danger in that training when the vast majority of interactions don’t require the use, really, of any force. . . . That fear is what’s driving officers to shoot, and to interpret situations much more vigorously than they need to be.”
And aside from just failing citizens, it feels as if it’s failing officers as well, most of whom, we have to imagine, do not want frighten or kill people.
The death of Zachary Hammond distills to the finest of points.
These are the margins of life and death in America. These deaths are happening over and over, and they are among the most important issues facing our communities.
There is always a moment when police don’t know if you are friend or foe, and they fear for their lives. The job of police officers, who are trained, who have taken an oath, is to hold that moment — to manage their anxieties long enough to assess the threat, even when things feel most unclear.
And if someone can’t hold that moment — which most of the time will be fine, but does carry a chance of grave harm — they mustn’t join the police force.
For more by O’Neal, visit wapo.st/lonnae.