In the six days since a black Minnesota police officer shot and killed a white Australian woman who had called 911 to report a possible rape, many commentators have suggested that the story is noteworthy because it flips the racial script for police violence.
Coverage of Officer Mohamed Noor’s slaying of Justine Damond has focused on its contrast with the grim American tradition of white cops killing unarmed black people. Some conservatives who frequently dismiss protestations over police killings have adopted the same outraged criticism they decried in Baton Rouge, Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charlotte.
When victims of police shootings are black, many pundits demand patience, withhold judgment of the officer’s actions, and start looking for dirt on the person killed. Damond isn’t targeted with the same prejudicial scrutiny, and Noor isn’t getting the same wait-and-see defense.
The hypocritical nature of conservative media reactions here overshadows a bigger problem: the tendency to treat every police shooting as a case of bad individuals, rather than emblematic of a systemic problem in U.S. law enforcement.
Take the argument pioneered by ex-cop turned right-wing radio host John Cardillo, which has since jumped to Infowars, WorldNetDaily, and other far-right online spaces. Cardillo argues that Noor, who is Somali American, was a “diversity hire” pushed by a class of politically correct administrators. If they wouldn’t have pushed for Noor’s hiring in the first place, the argument goes, Damond would still be alive today. Minneapolis gave deadly force to someone unqualified to wield it, these voices claim, because it made people feel good to have a more diverse police force.
A second, similar reaction has spread along the internet’s right edge, exemplified in notorious Islamophobe Pam Gellar’s coverage of the story. Gellar focuses on Noor’s religious affiliation and points to the specter of “Islamic supremacism,” asking readers to believe that Noor killed Damond because that is simply what Somali Americans do.
These reactions are astonishing in their racism, but the problem goes far beyond that. They also exonerate the police institutions that trained Noor, the conduct regulations that governed his behavior, and the political environment in which he and all other police currently operate.
In these renderings of the case, the important details are all about identity. Instead of a white cop killing an unarmed black man, it’s a black cop killing an unarmed white woman. Noor killed a woman who’d sought his help because something was wrong with him, not because anything is wrong with how the institution of policing conditions officers to behave, think, and react to situations.
If Noor is just one faulty piece in a perfectly fine system, fixing things is as simple as plucking him off the chessboard. No further questions need to be asked about how our public institutions hand out badges and guns; the probe stops at the supposed ills of inclusive hiring and religious tolerance.
The right’s push to narrow the focus of the Noor-Damond story is consistent with a larger pattern in reactions to sudden, hard-to-justify police killings of black people.
Inquiry into the individual circumstances and personalities of any given case is of course crucial. But in the eyes of activists and experts who have protested and studied police violence toward black America for decades, the explanation for seemingly unjustifiable police killings lies in how American society trains law enforcement personnel.
American police academies require many times more hours of training in lethal force, physical force, and the importance of dominating situations than they do in conflict resolution and de-escalation techniques. The training ratio has improved to varying degrees in different jurisdictions since 2006, when a Justice Department review found American cops receive a median of 60 hours of firearms training, but just 36 hours on criminal law and eight hours on conflict mediation skills. But the effort to emphasize de-escalation training is running into predictable cultural headwinds from cops.
After leaving the academy, a huge proportion of American police officers attend further training from the likes of Dave Grossman. Grossman named his firm the “Killology Research Group.” He teaches cops to think of themselves as vigilante-style superheroes who will have to kill someone at some point, rather than as upholders of societal law and individual rights who are empowered to use deadly force if it is necessary. They are taught to look for fatal force moments, to lean into the idea that killing is just another part of the job.
An extensive Pew poll of police officers last summer revealed huge proportions of the law enforcement community hold alarming attitudes toward their work. More than half reported that they’ve grown more callous toward other human beings since taking the job. Four out of nine said they believe some people only respond to physical force. Fifty-one percent reported they are frequently or nearly always frustrated while on the job.
And while car crashes are still the leading cause of death for police officers, multiple ambush–style murders of police in the past year have given officers anecdotal reasons to feel paranoid — hardly a mindset conducive to thoughtful action and composure in the field.
The policing business shows multiple signs of broad and deep-rooted decay. And bad-apple explanations after an unjustified or hard-to-justify police killing don’t explain these dynamics.
The right-wing reactions to Damond’s killing, while focusing on the race of the cop, are nothing new. They are consistent with the deflections apologists use to minimize the systematic nature of law enforcement abuses of power. They serve only to divert attention from the structural factors that give rise to preventable killings, beatings, and civil rights abuses, and deflate energy from an opportunity to advance systemic reforms.