Why black-on-black crime doesn’t invalidate police brutality

Michael C. Koval, the police chief of Madison, Wi., recently penned a blog post expressing frustrations over black protesters in the Badger State’s capital city. In the essay, he addressed the actions of an organization called the Young, Gifted, and Black Coalition, who has stated that “the relationship that we desire to have with police is simple: no interaction.” Firing back, Koval said that protesters blame police for “everything from male pattern baldness to global warming” and demanded that they “look a lot deeper at the issues besetting our people of color and stop pandering to the ‘blame game’ of throwing my Department to the wolves.”

In all fairness to Koval, part of his argument seemed to stem at least somewhat from concern for the safety of the black community. “You would have us ignore and dismiss the rights of the neighbors who are complainants, witnesses, and victims?” he asks. “Are you really advocating that the police abdicate our responsibilities to these folks?”

But regardless of what you think of his message, Koval’s thesis is clear and well-stated. He laments, “Perhaps others in Madison are afraid to violate the rules of political correctness,” and further states, “It’s a good thing that I don’t run for public office and can say what I mean and mean what I say.” 

Indeed, Koval apparently has no problem speaking his mind. There’s just one problem: everything he said was total bullshit.

First of all, Koval’s assertion that black people are blaming the police for “everything from male pattern baldness to global warming” is not only absurd, it’s offensive. Since when are the #BlackLivesMatter protesters asking for anything that they believe isn’t directly tied to their own safety and legitimate concerns stemming from recent police altercations around the country? Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice: these are not just the names of political talking points (something Koval should know, given that he so strongly states he isn’t a politician), but actual people who died at the hands of police violence.

Destroy the police’s reputation? No need to worry, Mr. Koval—the police have been doing an excellent job of that on their own.

Yet according to Koval, the black community is using these killings as some sort of bargaining chip to advance a fictional agenda and complain about unrelated topics in order to, what, exactly? Destroy the police’s reputation? No need to worry, Mr. Koval—the police have been doing an excellent job of that on their own.

Another person who discussed protesters “flogging their own agendas” was Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn, who made headlines last year when a video of him addressing the media went viral. After protesters accused Flynn of being on his phone during a public assembly to discuss the death of Milwaukee man Dontre Hamilton at the hands of the police, he got riled up and revealed that he was getting updates on a five-year-old girl who was killed in a drive-by shooting. Flynn was noticeably emotional during his speech, which is understandable, since he was talking about the death of a child. But the unfortunate reactions his remarks inspired mostly came from the following part of his criticism.

If some of the people here gave a good goddamn about the victimization of people in this city by crime, I’d take some of their invective more seriously. The greatest racial disparity in the city of Milwaukee is getting shot and killed… 80 percent of my homicide victims every year are African-American. 80 percent of our aggravated assault victims are African-American. 80 percent of our shooting victims who survive their shooting are African-American.

For a second, let’s remove Flynn’s words from their context and focus on the disturbing part of what they exposed. After the video of his comments began being passed around, racist trolls from all over jumped on it. As Gawker’s Jay Hathaway pointed out, “[Flynn’s speech] doesn’t do a damn thing to address the three police shooting protesters are concerned about, but it’s also not, as one of the most popular posts on Reddit today puts it, ‘a harsh truth about African-American crime in his community.’ It’s also not, as the top comment on YouTube claims, ‘the unpleasant truth about minorities and high crime rates.’ Don’t read the YouTube comments, by the way: They’re all about deporting ‘n***ers back to Africa.'”

We all know how little some white people care about black lives by now. It’s statistically proven that white jurors literally have less empathy for black victims than they do for white ones. But what about the police’s role in black on black crime? Milwaukee is an interesting starting point for this conversation, as it holds the distinction of being the most segregated city in America. Meanwhile, the case of Dontre Hamilton, though horrifying, was not as clear cut as many we’ve seen come to national prominence as of late. However, it was also far from the first time the Milwaukee Police Department had been accused of using excessive force.

Despite being Fox News’ new best friend, Flynn isn’t an entirely bad police chief. Though the officer who shot Dontre Hamilton did not face charges (surprise surprise), Flynn did fire him. Flynn also testified on Capitol Hill in favor of a ban on assault weapons. However, in many ways, he focused on the wrong statistics when talking about Milwaukee’s crime problem. “The harsh, unpleasant truth about minorities and high crime rates is that Wisconsin incarcerates a higher percentage of its black men than any other state—and it’s not close,” notes Hathaway. “A study last year found that 13 percent of working-age black men in the state are in prison or jail, nearly twice the national average.”

And now we get to the larger problem that comes statistics in general. Because numbers in these stories can be used to tell any tale that fits the storyteller’s narrative. As reactions to Ferguson in particular demonstrated, conservatives love to use black on black crime as evidence that police brutality isn’t a big deal. “Why are we so worried about this?” they yell. “Don’t you realize that the majority of black people who are killed are murdered by other black people!”

But guess what? Black on black crime does not invalidate police brutality as an issue. 

But guess what? Black on black crime does not invalidate police brutality as an issue. The two are only tied in the sense that police officers, along with many other people, are more likely to develop racist attitudes when they hear black crime statistics. This then makes them more likely to use excessive force when dealing with black citizens. Oh, and of course, black on black crime and police brutality are also related because racism is a systemic disease in America that’s designed to keep minorities at the bottom rung (which it’s been a great job at for hundreds of years) and, therefore, is also designed to create a disconnect between the police and African-American communities. But hey, that’s common knowledge, right? At least it should be to anyone not harboring the delusion that racism is over in America.

OK, so that’s two ways in which police brutality and black on black crime are related. However, what the relationship between these two issues does not allow for is the conclusion that because black on black crime exists, black men and women shouldn’t even worry about police brutality. So when Madison’s Chief Koval talks about protesters wanting to hand over police responsibilities to “these folks” and asks them to “look a lot deeper,” and consider whether they would have the police neglect the “witnesses and victims” crying out for their help, what he’s really saying is: “You’ve lost your right to complain because I already know how violent you are.” Or, to put it another way, he’s condemning the actions of the black community, without taking responsibility for the actions of his. And for the record, only one of those communities took an oath to put their lives on the line.

Koval bemoans how taking police out of black communities will silence witnesses and victims of ongoing crime. But what about the witnesses and victims of crimes committed by police? Should they be silenced, too?

A lot has been written about the deaths of the NYPD officers who were killed in retaliation for the Eric Garner verdict. And it is indisputable that these officers’ murders were grotesque and tragic. However, it is incredibly hypocritical to sit by as the NYPD protests what they see as unfair treatment by their mayor and their city, and not call out people like Koval, who is pretty much demanding that protesters get over it already in his. The deaths of innocent black folks at the hands of the police are just as unfair and atrocious as the deaths of police officers themselves. Officers who die in the line of duty should be remembered as heroes, but their deaths don’t negate the fact that police have largely failed a huge part of the population they are sworn to protect.

Koval should consider this next time he addresses protesters. Unless he wants us to just get over the deaths of fallen police officers, too, or for people to ask unproductive questions like, “How many police officers aren’t killed in retaliation for racial violence?” Because in the meantime, he remains an awful hypocrite.

The really sad thing about the Young, Gifted, and Black Coalition’s demands is that the police should be able to interact with black neighborhoods, ideally by helping to address their problems, liaise with community leaders, and protect their safety. Basically, they should be able to do all the same stuff they do in white neighborhoods. But after listening to the police use violence in black communities as a scapegoat every time they mess up, it’s no wonder they want nothing to do with them anymore.

You can only be let down so many times before you start to lose hope altogether.

Photo via jonny2love/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.