Erika D. Smith

A dumb, dangerous dismissal of Black Lives Matter

Kevin Carter speaks at a Black Lives Matter rally outside of the Carmichael campaign headquarters of Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones.
Kevin Carter speaks at a Black Lives Matter rally outside of the Carmichael campaign headquarters of Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones. aseng@sacbee.com

In these tense times, when police are killing black men under – at best – questionable circumstances and black men are killing police for revenge, there are ways for law enforcement agencies to build bridges with the communities they serve. And there are also ways to burn those bridges down.

Scott Jones and his Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department? Well, they seem to like playing with fire.

The gasoline? A dubious opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal with the headline, “The Myths of Black Lives Matter.”

For who knows how long, printed-out copies of the op-ed were sitting in a brochure holder in the lobby of the department’s office – you know, for perusal by the public there to get fingerprints taken or a concealed-carry permit.

It was written by Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, and the author of a new book, “The War on Cops.” The piece originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal in February and, coincidentally, was reprinted over the weekend.

It’s full of debatable and statistically misleading “facts.” Stuff like, “police officers – of all races – are also disproportionately endangered by black assailants.” And, “fatal police shootings make up a much larger proportion of white and Hispanic homicide deaths than black homicide deaths.”

Oh, and my personal favorite: “A concentration of criminal violence in minority communities means that officers will be disproportionately confronting armed and often resisting suspects in those communities, raising officers’ own risk of using lethal force.”

Despite the inflammatory language that’s completely inappropriate for a taxpayer-funded law enforcement agency to be peddling to the public, the copies of the article in the brochure rack went unnoticed until last week.

That’s when a woman named Erica Rettig – known on Facebook as Erica Marie – walked into the office to get her fingerprints done so she could volunteer at the jail. That was on Thursday, one day after police shot Philando Castile in Minnesota, the bloody aftermath streamed online to the world, and two days after officers tackled and shot Alton Sterling in Louisiana.

“I’m sitting there waiting for my turn,” she posted on Facebook, “and I notice that the counter has one of those brochure stands, but instead of information, there are like 30 copies of this ... anti-Black Lives Matter propaganda ready to be handed out.”

“The police are openly handing out an editorial that tells people who are applying to carry a gun that black people are dangerous criminals and they need to protect themselves,” she continued. “I have no words.”

Her Facebook post went viral. As of Monday, it had been shared 147 times.

Eventually, it got the attention of Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna, who had plenty of words.

“I want an explanation by this afternoon,” he wrote in a terse email to county employees. “This is inappropriate and offensive, and exacerbates an otherwise already delicate situation. Extremely disappointed.”

That was sent Friday morning, a day after Micah Johnson opened fire on police during an otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter rally in Dallas. Five officers were killed and many others were wounded.

A day later, Black Lives Matters protesters descended on Jones’ campaign office in Carmichael.

They were there to protest the use of excessive force by deputies, particularly, they argue, in the case of Adrienne Ludd, who was shot by deputies in October.

But the opinion piece was on their radar, too. I doubt it helped anyone’s mood.

Copies have since been removed from the brochure rack.

“We immediately conducted an investigation to determine who placed the article in the public lobby,” spokesman Sgt. Tony Turnbull said. “Through our investigation, we found that a part-time Sheriff’s Department employee was responsible.”

He didn’t name the employee but said he or she violated department policy.

Yet, the fact that an employee felt comfortable enough to put it up there at all says a lot about the domineering cowboy culture of a department that has been socked with multiple lawsuits over everything from discrimination to excessive force.

Turnbull also declined to say whether the employee who did it was disciplined. If not, he or she should be.

Black Lives Matter is more than the name of an organization of activists. It’s an unapologetic statement of self-worth – not just by protesters, but on behalf of every black person who has been marginalized or treated as less than equal by various systems of government.

That’s why as much as some people in conservative circles would love to see Black Lives Matter be declared a hate group alongside the KKK, it’s probably not going to happen.

The activists, love them or hate them, have exposed a real problem: the rate at which police use excessive and deadly force against suspects – often for what start out as some of the most insignificant offenses.

So far this year, we’re up to 515 people killed by cops, including the knife-wielding man who was shot by Sacramento police on Monday. That’s more than two people a day.

Study after study shows it’s a systemic problem.

Because of implicit bias more than racism, black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be fatally shot by police. But, as the case of Dylan Noble, a white man from Fresno, shows, it could happen to anyone.

It’s even a problem for police officers, most of whom, I have to believe, don’t really want to kill people.

Sure, sometimes it’s unavoidable. Police work is messy, dangerous, unpredictable work. But I also have to believe there are ways for more suspects to make it into courtrooms instead of morgues. De-escalation shouldn’t be a dirty word.

It’s going to take all of us – community and police – to figure out how to reform our criminal justice system so that it serves everyone equally. And to do that, we must get away from what Attorney General Kamala Harris, in her remarks before deputizing California’s new Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board on Friday, called “a false choice.”

This isn’t “about the protection of the lives of police officers or about the protection of black lives.” Reforms must be about both.

No one has to pick a side. In fact, no one should – especially an already maligned Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, casually promoting the notion that the concerns of Black Lives Matter are nothing more than a “myth.”

Fighting this fire with fire will just leave everyone burned.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith

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