Once again a “viral video” of a black man dying at the hands of police is making the rounds on social media. This time, his name is George Floyd. Already, protests have become riots. The usual refrain — that black people are prisoners in a racist society, that they are “hunted” the moment they leave their homes each day, that there is no justice (and therefore there should be no peace) is being repeated ad nauseam. But in all this understandable outrage, a valuable principle is forgotten. It is Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which can be attributed to stupidity.
Certainly, the death of George Floyd is horrible. No matter what a man does, even if he is fighting police, he does not deserve to be suffocated once subdued. The officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck is a murderer, in my opinion, who deserves to pay the same price for his crime as did former Dallas officer Amber Guyger (who entered “the wrong apartment” and then shot a man sitting on his own couch eating his own ice cream).
There is no shortage of stories, in fact, of police officers intimidating, mistreating, and yes, even wounding or murdering people who did little or nothing to deserve such treatment. One YouTube creator, a former policeman himself, calls it “earning the hate,” regularly showcasing videos of police abusing their powers. When a police officer abuses a citizen, he or she is abusing the power with which that officer has been entrusted in good faith. That’s a problem.
Except that it’s not the problem you’ve been told. For the most part, police officers who abuse their power or who use excessive force do pay for their crimes. We hear about the cases when they occur. A few do slip through the cracks, yes. The proliferation of smartphones has made it more likely that such abuses will be caught on video, that the videos will go viral, and that authorities — often slow to act when one of their own is caught misbehaving — will take action.
More importantly, the countless interactions between citizens and police that occur “by the book” — or, even more often, involve officers absorbing abuse and refusing to rise to the bait because their careers can very easily be destroyed if they make a mistake — rarely make the news. Sometimes they do, such as a string of stories involving abuse in New York of NYPD officers who had water or rocks thrown on and at them.
Overwhelmingly, when a man makes the decision to fight with police, he is a dangerous person. Imagine the calculus that must go through your head when you make that decision. For you, the citizen, there are unlimited cops. Yes, the number is finite in reality. For you, however, there will always be more than you can fight. For you, an individual, 30 cops might as well be three thousand or three million. There will always be more police officers than you can resist. To make the decision to fight them, then, means you are not considering the consequences… and people who do not consider consequences are very dangerous indeed.
Does that mean such a person deserves to have a knee in their neck? Definitely not. Does that mean, however, that in the heat of the moment, a stupid, foolish, or even mean-spirited officer might do something with deadly consequences? Certainly. What we must remind ourselves, however — tempting as it is to revel in outrage at select abuses — is that there are more than 800,000 police officers in the United States. That means there’s one police officer out of every 410 people in the U.S., very roughly. Are we to believe that every one of those 800,000 officers (even the ones who are themselves persons of color) are virulent racists who live for the joy of destroying black lives? It’s not believable. What is believable, however, is that police officers are human, and some of them are bad people (just like the population at large).
You could argue that citizens of color around the country have been told, day in and day out, that they are being targeted. Small wonder, then, that anyone would develop a chip on their shoulder (and be more likely to act out or even resist) when they are accosted by an officer. In Washington, D.C., recently, cops attempted to break up a gathering on a basketball court at a local school. One man snapped and punched an officer in the face. Couple weariness over lockdowns with that same media-driven chip on the shoulder, and you have a volatile formula. It’s hard not to sympathize. The fact remains, though, that when you fight someone in power, you will inevitably lose.
This is not to parrot the oft-cited line, “Just do what you’re told and you’ll be okay.” The libertarian in me rankles at the thought. Citizens of this country should not be abused; they should be treated with respect by law enforcement, not condescension and self-righteousness. We’ve all encountered police who treated us with the latter… and yet, many more times in our lives, we have encountered police who were nothing but professional. We remember the outrages. We tend to forget the interactions that conclude without issue.
Does anyone truly believe that a police officer, except in rare exceptions, decides how he or she will treat another person based on that person’s skin color? Or is it much more likely that the officer makes decisions (good or bad) based on how that citizen behaves? For that matter, do any of us truly believe any police officer in America thinks his career will be safe if he straight-up murders a man, especially a black man? Or is it more likely that the average officer operates under the pressure of knowing how little margin for error he has… and thus, the ones who DO make career-ending mistakes are very likely stupid, mean-spirited, and incompetent in ways that transcend race? Stated another way, if an incompetent and overzealous police officer encountered a white man who spat in his face and resisted arrest, do we honestly believe that white suspect would be given a pass based on his race?
The deaths of human beings in police custody are always a tragedy. Some of those human beings were innocent of any crime. Others were guilty of offenses that did not warrant death. But except in the rarest of exceptions, those deaths were driven, not by racism and hatred, but by something much worse and something much more prevalent: human stupidity. We must be very careful not to attribute to racism or hate that which can be explained by simple incompetence. The true horror of our society is that the latter is much more common than the former.