How did jaywalking lead to a brutal beating?

Two things are striking about the video captured by then Asheville Police Officer Chris Hickman’s body camera when he and an officer-in-training stopped Johnnie Rush for jaywalking near McCormick field in Asheville in the early morning hours of Aug. 25, 2017.

The first is that their concern for his safety should have been the officers’ primary motivation for asking him to use the crosswalk, but there’s no indication in the video they conveyed any such concern to Rush.

This was a jaywalking incident, not an armed robbery. Jaywalking is a crime because it endangers the life of the pedestrian who is doing it. It also risks upending the life of a motorist unlucky enough to come along and hit said pedestrian and risks causing related traffic accidents when a driver attempts to avoid the person in the highway. But without a doubt the pedestrian, who stands to be killed or seriously injured, has the most to lose. Yet nothing in the officers’ attitude implied they stopped Rush to protect him.

Rush believed, as he said in the video that the officers were just harassing him when he was tired and trying to get home from a 13-hour shift at work. He undoubtedly knew that scores of people jaywalk in that area at times of heavier traffic during baseball games.

The second thing that’s striking is how quickly, and without any threat on Rush’s part, the encounter escalated into a brutal beating. Rush was Tasered twice and Hickman used his fists to repeatedly beat him in the head after Rush was subdued and on the ground. The Asheville Citizen-Times published the video in late February after an unknown source turned it over to a reporter.

Those who enforce the law represent one of the most important institutions in a civil society. Those who have visited or lived in countries without effective law enforcement know what it’s like to live in walled compounds, to find a guard with a shotgun at the entrance of a paint store or a bank or to take your life in your hands when you drive on a highway where the aggressive and fearless dictate the rules of the road.  The presence of well-trained, dedicated law enforcement officers keeps us safe from that in America. For most white Americans, the presence of a law enforcement officer provides a sense of security.

But if you are African American or Latino in America, that sense of security is compromised. Studies have shown that your chance of encountering officers ready to assume you have or are about to break the law is significantly greater than for white Americans. A 2015 analysis of five years of police data by The New York Times found that in Greensboro, North Carolina, police officers used their discretion to search black drivers or their cars twice as often as white motorists, even though they found drugs or weapons significantly more often when the drivers were white.

“Officers were more likely to stop black drivers for no discernible reason,” according to The New York Times story about the analysis. “And they were more likely to use force if the driver was black, even when they did not encounter physical resistance.”

The Greensboro police chief initially disputed the story, but when interviewed by the Greensboro News and Record a day after the story broke, he said, “The numbers, we believe at this point, are accurate.”

The New York Times chose North Carolina for the analysis because it is among the states that monitor traffic stops most intensely. The Times reported that similar racial disparities were found across North Carolina and in seven other states with extensive data on traffic stops and searches. Other studies and analyses conducted throughout the country have consistently shown racial bias on the part of law enforcement.

Confidence in public institutions is what makes civil society work. It’s what forestalls chaos. When members of a community become more fearful of those empowered to enforce the law than they are of those who break it, the prospects for civil unrest are greatly enhanced.

But, if you are black, how can you watch the video of Johnnie Rush being beaten and not be frightened and outraged? We ask a lot of police officers, but the most important thing we ask of them is to keep us safe. How can we trust them to do that when we don’t feel safe from them? What kind of rage would compel an officer to severely beat a man guilty of nothing more than mouthing off and jaywalking?

Law enforcement officers do a job that is dangerous, physically demanding, underpaid and that sometimes requires them to make snap judgments on which their lives or the lives of others depend. As is the case with other maligned professions, most are hard-working and conscientious.

But one thing seems certain, the answer to why Johnnie Rush was brutally beaten isn’t just one rogue officer. It’s a systemic problem and solving it demands that law enforcement agencies become much more proactive in rooting out racist practices and behaviors.  Everyone’s security depends on building law enforcement agencies that are as diverse as the communities they serve, where there is a culture of respect for all, and where the safety of all citizens is paramount.

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