This Problem Isn't Going Away: Heartless Police Shootings of Unarmed Black Americans Continue Into the Trump Era
To be black in America means to live in a state of constant vulnerability. To be black in America means to be viscerally aware of this vulnerability especially as it relates to interactions with law enforcement. Walking with friends is dangerous. Playing with a BB gun in the park is a fatal mistake. Looking like a “bad dude” could spell the end of your life. Even leaving a party is grounds for extrajudicial murder.
This vulnerability bears out statistically as much as it does anecdotally. A study from Drexel University researchers found that black people are 2.8 times more likely than whites to be killed during encounters with law enforcement. A Vox analysis of FBI data found that in 2012, black people composed 31 percent of the victims of police killings, despite comprising only 13 percent of the total United States population.
The police violence imposed upon black bodies has taken a pronounced toll on black teens: Between 2010 and 2012, black teens were found to be 21 times more likely than their white counterparts to be shot and killed by police, according to ProPublica’s analysis.
These trends show no sign of abating. So far in 2017, black people have constituted 25 percent of the police shooting victims, according to the Washington Post. Out of the 339 people shot and killed by police this year, 85 of them are black—and it’s only May.
Even being unarmed doesn’t insulate black bodies from being on the receiving end of fatal force. A study from the University of California, Davis, found that the likelihood of unarmed black people being shot by the police is 3.49 times higher than that of unarmed whites. This is the case even though, as independent researchers noted, blacks are less likely to constitute an immediate threat at the time of a fatal police shooting than are whites.
The disparities are even starker for black men. Black men composed 40 percent of all the unarmed victims of fatal police shootings in 2015 and 34 percent of all such victims in 2016, statistics severely disproportionate to their mere 6 percent representation in the United States population.
As Justin Nix, one of the researchers, summarized, “The only thing that was significant in predicting whether someone shot and killed by police was unarmed was whether or not they were black.” The other circumstances of the shooting were irrelevant.
Evidence of such implicit bias against black men on the part of police is consistent even in video game simulations. Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that participating police officers were quicker to draw and use their weapons to shoot blacks than whites in situations that warranted such a response. Almost more troubling was a study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which tested for evidence of a “dehumanization bias” in mostly white male police officers in 2014. Not only were the participating officers determined to be consistently dehumanizing blacks, but there also existed a strong correlation among the officers between exhibiting such a tendency to dehumanize and a record of using excessive force on blacks in custody.
It was against this backdrop of institutional and structural racism entrenched within the justice system that Donald Trump ascended to the presidency. Known for the racist rhetoric that drove thousands to his campaign rallies across the country, President Trump has shown no sign of changing his tune. If anything, he has doubled down on his hostility toward black (and brown) people: He threatened to “send in the Feds” to Chicago, a dog whistle so loud it’s just a whistle. And his Justice Department, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a man with his own questionable history of racism, just declined to bring federal charges against the police officers who murdered Alton Sterling, a man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong color skin.
At the same time, the Trump administration has been unwavering in its support for police and has made a commitment, according to the White House website, “to empower[ing] our law enforcement officers.” This is in striking contrast to the administration’s threat that its focus isn’t on making “life more comfortable for the rioter, the looter, or the violent disruptor.” (Hint: they’re referring to the black people exercising their First Amendment rights to demand that trigger-happy police stop killing them.)
With a different black person being killed by police seemingly every day, it can be tempting to fit them into a stream of victims of police violence and consolidate them together into faceless, nameless statistics. But they’re not: They had families, careers and aspirations. In the days between the inauguration of Donald Trump on January 21 and May 4, 73 black people have been shot and killed by the police. Five were unarmed, including, most recently, Jordan Edwards.
These are the stories of the other four.
1. Nana Adomako, 45, Fremont, Calif. (Feb. 5, 2017)
Police responded to a Verizon Wireless store on the afternoon of February 5, to reports of disruptions and threats on the part of a man later identified as Nana Adomako. Adomako left and shortly afterwards encountered a police officer as he was walking along the street. The officer, who recognized Adomako from a previous non-violent interaction, asked him to stop and sit on the curb. Adomako refused and asked why he was being required to stop. He began making nonsensical comments to the officer. Instead of registering Adomako’s comments as evidence of a mental health issue, the officer began to assess how he could physically subdue Adomako. Using his Taser was not an option given Adomako’s bulky clothing, so the officer tried to put Adomako in a control hold. The officer also sicced his police dog on Adomako. Adomako allegedly responded with a punch to the officer’s head after the dog attacked the officer instead of him.
The officer shot Adomako three times from close range. Another officer arrived to help. The two worked together to handcuff the dying man rather than calling an ambulance or administering preliminary first aid to Adomako, who died at the scene.
The officer involved is on paid administrative leave while the Fremont Police Department and the Alameda County District Attorney’s office investigate the shooting.
According to Adomako’s brother, Nana Dwomoh, Adomako was struggling with mental health issues and “didn’t deserve to die this way.”
2. Chad Robertson, 25, Chicago, Illinois (Feb. 8, 2017)
Chad Robertson, a 25-year-old father of two, was traveling home to Minneapolis after attending the wedding of a friend in Memphis. He arrived in Chicago for a layover accompanied by two male friends. The three went inside Union Station for a reprieve from the cold where they were accosted by two police officers, who suspected them of smoking marijuana. Noticing that they had left their luggage behind at the station in the confusion of the interaction, one of the men returned to retrieve it. The men were confronted again by the two officers.
Robertson ran when an officer began checking his pockets. According to Robertson’s lawyer, the officer yelled, “If you don’t stop running, I’m going to shoot you.” And he did. Instead of attempting to pursue Robertson or subdue him with a Taser, the officer fired his gun once, hitting the unarmed Robertson in the left shoulder.
Days later, on February 11, Robertson was in critical condition at Stroger Hospital, paralyzed from his shoulders down. Nina Robertson, Chad’s sister, said one of the first things her brother asked her was, “Why did they shoot me? I didn’t do anything wrong.” After learning of his paralysis, Robertson mourned that the “police ruined my life.”
Robertson died on February 15.
3. Raynard Burton, 19, Detroit, Michigan (Feb. 13, 2017)
In a situation that bears a frustrating resemblance to the murder of Sam DuBose, Raynard Burton was murdered during what should have been a routine police traffic stop, another victim in a disturbingly long line of traffic stop murders.
After crashing his vehicle into a utility pole, Burton exited his vehicle and ran from the officer. A foot chase ensued, ending at a house nearby. He was shot once in the right side of his chest.
The officer who murdered Burton remained on the beat despite having a well-documented history of exercising excessive and fatal force. In 1995, the officer was censured for randomly shooting a pigeon with his department-issued weapon. In 1998, the officer fired multiple times at a man who after retrieving money from an ATM made the mistake of attempting to enter the officer's vehicle. The officer somehow evaded punishment for this incident (though not for firing at a bird). Reports of a 2015 incident have recently surfaced in which the officer allegedly fired approximately 15 bullets into a vehicle containing a man who insisted he was unarmed.
That the officer was not fired long before his encounter with Burton speaks to the existence of a bias on the part of police departments toward protecting officers at the expense of members of the public. Raynard Burton is dead, while his murderer remains employed by the Detroit Police Department, albeit on restricted duty. An investigation into the murder has been launched.
4. Alteria Woods, 21, Gifford, Florida (March 19, 2017)
Alteria Woods, a soon-to-be mom, was killed in her home by police during a raid initiated by a Florida SWAT team. The targets of the raid were Woods’ boyfriend and his father, on whom officers were serving search warrants. Woods was an innocent bystander. The officers involved should have deescalated the situation until Woods could be removed from the situation altogether or otherwise removed to a position of safety. Apprehending the suspects, at whatever cost was apparently more important. Woods was caught in the crossfire.
Though Woods’ boyfriend fired his weapon, it was ultimately a police bullet that killed her.
Woods’ cousin Kaleasha Johnson remembered Woods as being more like a sister than a cousin, whose easy laugh meant that there was never a “dull moment.” During an interview, Johnson said Woods was on a path toward success. She was on the honor roll at Sebastian River High School, where she was dually enrolled in high school and college classes.
Johnson expressed the difficulty of coming to terms with the loss: “I’m numb. She can’t be brought back.” Echoed Woods’ aunt Arlene Cooper, “We don’t know what to do, no closure.”
Dozens of protesters took to the streets outside the scene in hopes of achieving some sort of justice for Alteria, even if it came in the form of better relations between the black community and police.
The Indian River County officers involved are on paid administrative leave while the investigation into Woods’ murder continues.
Paid Leave More Common Than Justice
The outcomes of these stories might offer the impression that paid administrative leave is the dominant form of punishment for fatally shooting unarmed people. Such an impression would not necessarily be misplaced: the prosecution of law enforcement officers is exceedingly rare, due to the fact that they are empowered by law to exercise a wide degree of latitude in using force. Those who are prosecuted need only utter five words that amount to a get-out-of-jail card: “I feared for my life.”
Law enforcement officers on trial must demonstrate that they used fatal force in response to an imminent threat that made them reasonably determine that their lives were at stake. As rare as prosecution is, conviction is even more infrequent.