Background image: Fort Point and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Viral video makes us feel too comfortable about police killings
April 13, 2015
The video below of black motorist Will Stack, who was stopped for a traffic violation in South Carolina, has gone viral with hundreds of thousands of Facebook shares. It’s not hard to understand why.
He was cooperative with the white officer who pulled him, careful not to seem threatening in any way and acknowledged ignorance of the law he was accused of breaking. He said his respect was reciprocated and he got off with a warning.
It’s the way we’d all like such an interaction to go between Americans and the people they entrust to enforce their laws.
But videos of traffic stops that go the way everybody wants and expects don’t go viral any more than videos of routine airplane landings do – not unless what everybody wants and expects is counter to the way we know, or fear, things really are.
The current events context of this video is a steady stream of police killings around the country, including a week-old video from South Carolina, of Walter Scott, another black driver, being shot in the back and killed by a white police officer who originally pulled him for a broken tail light.
Stack’s message is that people – even black people in South Carolina – who behave as he did rarely have anything to fear. It went viral because what happened to Walter Scott is what we believe happens far too often and we're desperate for comforting evidence to the contrary.
Last month American police killed 111 of the nation’s 320 million people – mostly non-whites, people who were mentally ill or both. That was up 36 from the number police killed in February.
In Canada, with a population roughly one-tenth ours, police killed 14 people in all of 2014. In the United Kingdom, a country with about one-sixth our population, police killed 52 people in the entire 20th Century. In Germany, where the population is a quarter of ours, police haven’t killed anyone in two years.
Eighty percent of the cases involved at least one of the circumstances of the police killing in North Charleston, S.C.: the victim was shot in the back, there was video of the killing, and a cover-up was alleged or a fellow officer testified against the killer.
Eleven of the 54 officers have been convicted, 21 were acquitted or had their cases dismissed and 19 cases are still pending. The outcome of the remaining three were classified as “other.”