End police killing of innocent Black lives: A statement from Barnabas Partners
O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people! –Jeremiah 9:1
We face a national crisis in the United States of America concerning increasing violence and the growing threat to innocent Black lives from America’s police. Daily in America, Black citizens are slain by police officers who are publicly sworn to protect the citizenry. This national crisis is well documented from Baton Rouge, La., to Falcon Heights, Minn.; from Waller County, Tex., to Ferguson, Mo.; from Chicago, Ill., to Savannah, Ga.; from Cleveland, Ohio, to Staten Island, N.Y.; from the mountains to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam. However, time and again, when police brutalize and murder Black people, they escape criminal prosecution.
Urgently needed is a remedy that protects Black people from persistent police brutality and murder. Also needed are sweeping policy changes advocated by the White House and by the United States Justice Department requiring prosecution of police officers that keep with the standard protocols for investigating and prosecuting civilians when homicides are committed. Ultimately, we need respect for the dignity of all human life with a firm resolve as a nation to live together in peace as a beloved community.
To be clear, violent confrontations with law enforcement and vigilante killings are not a remedy, but a dangerous diversion from our righteous struggle for justice and peace. We reject and condemn assaults on police officers with the same conviction with which we condemn the killings of innocent civilians. As we grieve the loss of innocent civilians, we also grieve the loss of police officers and pray for their families and loved ones.
America’s current practice following the slayings of Blacks by police is a blend of cultural pathology on the part of prosecutors combined with racist urban mythology that quickly evolves into sympathy for the police officers, without regard for the unjust killing of Black lives. Such gives dangerous credence to the notion that police are daily under fire from Black Americans (which, despite recent events in Dallas, is historically untrue) and therefore justified in using deadly force against Black lives in order to protect their own lives, even when the use of deadly force is not justified.
Next, as we express honor, respect and appreciation for police officers knowing that most are decent people, the time has come for law enforcement officers to publicly affirm that “Black lives matter” in view of the glaring incidents of excessive force and brutality against innocent Black citizens. In the midst of hostility, there is a real need to regain public trust and cultivate mutual respect.
The perception in America is that Black lives do not matter to the police—whether they are men or women, boys or girls. Recent police conduct has proven that Black people from all walks of life, representing diverse cultural and religious identities, and varied socio-economic backgrounds, are at risk of being unfairly profiled, detained, assaulted, arrested and murdered by America’s police every day of the week for simply sitting in the privacy of their own homes, playing in the park, visiting a swimming pool, walking down the sidewalk, standing in a hotel lobby, selling cigarettes or CDs on the street, riding a bicycle, or driving a car.
The killing of Black Americans by the police is so frequent that we can predict the public pageantry in the aftermath of a police shooting:
- Planned statements will be made to the press by police officials primarily for the purpose of keeping the peace.
- Police will try to assure the public that—despite what they may be seeing (a video showing the murder) or what they may be hearing (eyewitnesses speaking to the media describing the murder of an innocent Black person by police)—“Things are not always what they seem, and there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes that normal people can’t see when the police kill Black people. Just keep calm and trust the police to get to the bottom of this over the next several months.”
- State’s attorneys will equivocate concerning their intentions under pressure from their friends in police unions while publicly expressing no regard for Black life.
- Police unions will make early pronouncements professing solidarity with their comrades while publicly expressing no regard for Black life.
- Then follows elaborate calls for grand jury proceedings to decide whether there is enough evidence to charge the police for a crime. (This is always a bad deal for the cause of justice—those meetings are secret, the murderer gets to speak to the grand jurors in his own defense without being cross-examined, and all “evidence” is sealed.)
- In the ensuing weeks and months, the character of the deceased persons will be smeared in the media as their history (which has no relevance to their momentary encounter with the police) is made to loom larger than the violent conduct of the police in question.
- Interviews of eyewitnesses and community members will degenerate into intimidating interrogations with damaging allegations made against their character.
- Videotapes and other evidence will be lost or compromised by investigators and key witnesses or family members will not be questioned by the police.
- A typical investigation of a murder that includes a weapon, perpetrator, multiple videos and eyewitnesses is usually wrapped up within a matter of days. However, when the police murder an innocent civilian, months transpire before a decision is announced concerning whether or not charges will be filed.
Typically, no charges are brought against the police at the end of an investigation. Or, if charges are filed, the case against them is fumbled in such a glaring way by prosecutors, or evidence against the police is deemed inadmissible by the Court, or instructions to the jury are narrowly prescribed in such a way as to guarantee an acquittal. In the end, the repeated failure of America’s justice system to convict police who murder innocent Black lives begins to feel like state-sanctioned murder. All that notwithstanding, every day ordinary civilians are convicted of murder in much less time on far less evidence in America’s courts.
Something has to change in America.
First, America needs to reckon with its historic race problem whereby Black life is devalued. Despite moral movements in America which purport to defend the sanctity of life, those voices fall eerily silent when innocent Black lives are murdered by the police. Despite the gun lobby’s movement for the right to bear arms in America, those voices fall eerily silent when innocent Black people who bear arms without threatening the police are murdered, while the police allege justification in killing the person simply because they believed he was armed with a gun or other weapon. When Black life is not valued, it follows that Blacks are not seen as having any rights that the police are bound to protect.
Second, America needs to confront the spread of racism in the ranks of its police forces. The majority of the violence targeted at America’s Black citizens is not a function of responsible policing, but rather emanates from racist attitudes and racial profiling on the part of individual police officers and race-based policies of police departments.
Third, leadership is urgently needed from the White House and Justice Department to name the evils of racial bias, police brutality and violence against Black Americans as unacceptable and unlawful. The United States government is not slow to name and condemn other nations when innocent civilians are killed by agents of those governments. In most places throughout the world, police are understood to be government agents. Therefore, it follows that people throughout the world perceive the murders of Black people in America as state-sanctioned killings. Thus, it is urgent, both for the well-being of Black Americans and for America’s image throughout the world, that our national leadership enact sweeping policy and legislative changes protecting the rights of Americans from police brutality and excessive force and assaults.
Legislative action is needed on the part of the U.S. Congress, state legislatures, governors and mayors to protect citizens against police brutality and excessive force, and require immediate and full prosecution of a police officer when it is suspected that the use of lethal force was not justified, thereby relieving prosecutors of political considerations related to indicting police officers who are suspected of murdering innocent civilians.
As faith leaders, we reject violence and advocate for respect and security for all human life. We speak in the name of the loving God who created all people in God’s image and loves us all equally and unconditionally. God does not tolerate injustice, or look the other way when human beings are violated. We pray for grace and healing for all those who are victims of injustice and violence. We pray for righteousness and justice on behalf of all those who have been treated wrongly. We seek reconciliation and recompense on behalf of all those who deserve and want better. We dedicate ourselves to working tirelessly in our communities and our nation on behalf of change and progress, while speaking truth to power, correcting injustices, and improving the quality of life for all people. Amen
Dr. Jeffrey Haggray, Executive Director, American Baptist Home Mission Societies
Dr. Aidsand F. Wright-Riggins, III, Executive Director Emeritus
Rev. Dr. Norman Bullock
Rev. Dr. John L. Giles
Rev. Dr. Anthony Lloyd
Dr. Robert Charles Scott
Rev. Shane B. Scott
Dr. J. Alfred Smith Sr.
Rev. J. Alfred Smith Jr.
Rev. Dr. Jacqueline Thompson
Rev. Robert A. Wilkins
Rev. Patrick Young