People who defend the police in the Sean Bell case will no doubt say that the policemen involved felt they were in danger and reacted with necessary, though possibly excessive force. They are wrong.

Police are necessary to maintaining civil order in our society, and I would not want to live in a world without them. But we should not act as though there's no tension between those people who walk in that society armed with authority and weaponry and those who do not. I don't inherently respect the badge, or even the person carrying it--I fear the power that person wields over me. It's not a cringing fear--it's the nagging dread that I or anyone could have my life ended by someone with an itchy trigger finger over something as simple as a mistaken identity or a miscommunication in body language.

It's less likely to happen to me than to others because I'm a white male--it's pretty clear that, in most situations, I'll get the unconscious benefit of the doubt more often than someone like Sean Bell did. As dNa put it:

These did not sound like bloodthirsty men who just wanted to pop somebody, they sounded like cops who got scared and behaved recklessly. A man is dead because of that, and I don't see any justice in allowing them to go free without consequences.

And I will say this: 50 shots at an unarmed target. That kind of thing never, ever seems to happen to anyone else.
The NY Times article noted that "None of the police vehicles were marked. None used their lights and sirens. None of the officers wore raid jackets, which clearly identify a police officer." That's the problem, in a nutshell.

We, as a nation, are amped on fear, and we have been for a long time. There was fear of a slave uprising in the earliest days of our founding (see dNa for the cool new cover art from The Roots) and I've seen it most of my life, from "Law and Order" Nixon to the drug wars of the 80s to the superpredators of the 90's to the collective panic we've been in since 2001 and as a result we have this armed contingent who walks among us "to protect and serve." But they're not immune to this fear--they're as amped on it as we are, if not more so. The difference is, they're armed, and most of us aren't.

And no, I don't think it's a good idea if we all arm ourselves.

But I do think it would be a good idea if the police, when they are going to interact with the public in an official capacity, should make it absolutely clear that they are the police. What happened in the Bell case sounds like it was a situation where Bell didn't know the man approaching him was a cop and he panicked--so did the cop, and before it was all over, 50 shots had been fired and Sean Bell was dead. And the cops involved--apparently unwilling to let their peers judge them--had a judge let them off without any punishment.

There will always be tension--there's no getting around that--but to the extent that we can reduce the miscommunication, we should, and that means that when a police officer approaches your vehicle, it ought to be clear that that's what he or she is, and that there's some official reason for him or her to do so. No one ought to die as a result of miscommunication between the police and the public.

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