‘But you’re not black’: Georgia cop assures drunk driver she can reach for her phone safely

Grim, but not inaccurate.

Dashboard camera footage of a 2016 DUI stop in Cobb County, Georgia. CREDIT: Screenshot/WSBTV
Dashboard camera footage of a 2016 DUI stop in Cobb County, Georgia. CREDIT: Screenshot/WSBTV

Georgia police officials are investigating a Cobb County officer who was caught on video reassuring a spooked white driver that “we only kill black people, right?” during a 2016 traffic stop.

Lt. Greg Abbott, a 28-year veteran of the Cobb County force, “was attempting to de-escalate a situation involving an uncooperative passenger,” attorney Lance LoRusso told local news reporters in a statement. “In context, his comments were clearly aimed at attempting to gain compliance by using the passenger’s own statements and reasoning to avoid making an arrest.”

The full video, from Abbott’s dashboard camera, shows the officer explaining to the woman that he’s going to arrest her for driving under the influence of alcohol. He instructs her to “call the person who was coming to get you” to let them know she’s being arrested. She replies that she is uncomfortable reaching into her lap to get her phone. “I’ve just seen so many videos of police,” she says, trailing off.

“But you’re not black,” Abbott replies, in the same tone of voice he’s used throughout the conversation. “Remember? We only kill black people. Yeah, we only kill black people, right? All the videos you’ve seen, have you seen black people get killed? You have.”

A lawyer representing the unnamed woman from the video told the local CBS affiliate he “believes the officer was being sarcastic after the woman ‘gave him some lip.'”

Sarcastic or earnest, the situation does have a crude but discernible logic. A police officer is interacting with a spooked citizen ahead of an anticipated arrest for drunk driving. He seeks to reassure her of her safety. But the best way he can come up with to assuage her fear is not to demonstrate that police are responsible, careful, and well trained to handle complex situations, but to remind her she is white.

Police do kill lots of white people every year, of course. But police killings and non-fatal brutality disproportionately fall on black and brown heads. The most notorious killings in recent years that stemmed from a cop getting twitchy during a traffic stop involved black victims.

The investigation into Abbott’s peculiar and alarming mode of talking to the woman comes at a sensitive time for Cobb County law enforcement. Cobb County leaders commissioned the International Association of Chiefs of Police to study their police department and make recommendations for reforms last year, after a string of racial bias episodes involving officers made local headlines.

While the group did not deem the department’s policies inherently prejudicial, it did note that the force is far whiter than the populace it serves. It also noted that the department is perceived as racially biased and urged the county to take steps to address a reputation for discriminatory policing.

Improved relationships between police and their community are not “something that you can purchase,” county Public Safety Director Sam Heaton told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution when the report was released in May. The release of the video of Abbott’s grim reassurance to a white citizen may reinforce the department’s reputation for racial bias — or advance the kind of frank transparency and open communication the report urged between the Cobb County community and its uniformed officers.