(theGrio) Is the policing of black men the new sport for white officers and wannabe cops?
This is a question worth asking, in light of this season of police killings, particularly the April 2nd fatal shooting of a black man named Eric Harris, 44, by Reserve Deputy Robert Bates. After officers brought Harris to the ground, an officer yelled “Taser” twice, after which Bates shot Harris with his gun and said, “Oh! I shot him. I’m sorry.” Apparently, Bates meant to shoot the man with his Taser rather than his gun.
As Harris yelled that he was shot, he said, “I’m losing my breath,” to which the officer responded, “f*** your breath.” Harris died an hour later.
But oh well, what difference does it make, right? Whether it’s a Taser or gun, it’s just another dead black man we’re talking about. Plus, the man said he was sorry.
Robert Bates, 73, who has been charged with second-degree manslaughter in Harris’ death, is a prime example of someone who went out of his way looking for trouble. To put it another way, he volunteered to be in that situation, or rather, he paid a lot of money to volunteer. Now a man is dead from a situation that did not warrant using a Taser, much less a gun.
But who gave Bates this authority?
One has to ask why the 73-year old CEO of an insurance company — with one year of full-time experience as a cop back in the 1960s — would be allowed to be in the thick of it, in a major, high-stakes operation where he had the power of life or death over Eric Harris.
On the surface, it would appear Bates was a “pay-to-play” wannabe cop. It turns out Bates haddonated video equipment, weapons and cars to the Sheriff’s Office, not to mention $2,500 to Sheriff Stanley Glanz’s reelection campaign in 2012. And he even served as the sheriff’s campaign chair. AsVox reported, as many as 130 reserve deputies in Tulsa are “wealthy people,” and it is not unusual for them to make donations. And as Salon had reported last year, some police departments openly ask for donations for a badge and gun permit.
Auxiliary police are nothing new. There are around 400,000 volunteer officers across the nation who, in a time of cash-strapped police departments, help fill in the gaps. But apparently, there is a wide discrepancy when it comes to what reserve cops can do. For example, in Los Angeles, they are allowed to do community relations and desk duty, while in the NYPD they are unarmed.
This state of affairs would give us the impression that anyone, at least in a department such as the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office, can play cop—at least if the price is right. It is also painfully evident that some individuals are all-too-eager to become police officers. Just to take it a step further, it is exceedingly difficult to fathom that these folks would be allowed to carry on in white communities and “accidentally” fatally shoot white citizens the way this reserve deputy killed Mr. Harris. It would not be allowed.
It is a little harder to wrap one’s head around this Tulsa incident unless we understand this country’s history concerning the policing of black people. Some would suggest the concept of police volunteers goes back to the Wild West, when common folk were deputized to fight crime and catch the bad guy. Although this is a valid assertion, there is also another troubling legacy of policing in America that is implicated in the shooting of Eric Harris.
As for black people, our first experience with police were the slave patrols. As Brittney Cooper reminds us in Salon, American policing traces its origins to these patrols.
During slavery times, all whites were encouraged and sanctioned to exert control over blacks. White men were deputized as members of the slave patrols — both slave masters and non-slaveholders alike — which were a crucial part of the slavery police state and economic order maintained by wealthy whites to maintain control over blacks. According to Professor Carl T. Bogus of Roger Williams University School of Law, these patrols were militias under the Second Amendment, designed to protect whites against slave rebellion.
“Virtually all able-bodied white men were part of the militia,” Bogus notes of Southern men, “which primarily meant that they had slave control duties under the direction and discipline of local militia officers.”
Old habits die hard, and the larger issue is that places such as Oklahoma have unresolved issues when it comes to race relations and the treatment of black people, as we saw with the recent racist fraternity chant at the University of Oklahoma. We should also remember that Tulsa is the site of a 1921 race riot in which the entire African-American community of Greenwood, also known as Black Wall Street, was destroyed by a white lynch mob, and hundreds were killed. And the Southern Poverty Law Center gave Oklahoma schools a grade of F for their lack of requirements about teaching the civil rights movement.
And in the Tulsa Sheriff’s Office, wealthy white men such as Robert Bates can pay to play slave patrol, play with black lives such as Eric Harris, and even take them.