How Do We Talk About Police Brutality When The Cops Aren’t White?

By Julianne Hing Feb 23, 2010

Yesterday, the verdict in the trial involving three New York police officers accused of abusing a young man of color was announced. Without even knowing the particulars of the case–say, for instance, that one of the police officers in question allegedly abused a man named Michael Mineo with a baton, which led the other two cops to orchestrate a cover-up–you probably know exactly what the jury decided yesterday. That’s right, all three cops were acquitted of all charges, on the claim that there was not enough evidence to prove that Mineo had actually had a baton shoved inside of him. The news came just days after it was announced that the cops involved in the shooting death of Sean Bell will not receive federal charges. People of color, especially young Black and Latino men, get shot at and killed by the police at disproportionately high rates. That much seems to be common enough knowledge these days. And the white cops who’ve shot them? They’re all typically acquitted, but that is less common knowledge and more irrefutable fact. But much of the way we talk about police brutality as a manifestation of racism rests on a classic narrative of individual white aggressors who brutalize Black and Latino men. So what happens when not all of the officers involved are white? In Michael Mineo’s case, the three accused officers were white (Officer Richard Kern) and Latino (Officers Andrew Morales and Alex Cruz). Check this graf from the NY Times :

And while the attack on Mr. Louima by a white police officer stirred longstanding complaints about the treatment of black men by the police, there was no racial component to Mr. Mineo’s case, since both he and the officers involved are white and Hispanic. It spawned neither major civil rights protests nor sweeping change to training or operations within the ranks.

Cops of color who brutalize other folks of color? It makes it all murky! How is it possible that men of color could perpetuate racism, and upon another man of color? It’s possible when individuals, white and otherwise, live in a bigoted society that casts Black and Latino men as inherently criminal, as untrustworthy, as deviant, as broken. It’s etched into the social fabric even if it isn’t codified in law. It’s an unequal system, and the individual actors within it can promote and perpetuate racism even without intending to. I don’t think it means that individual cops get to be relinquished of the responsibility they hold for their actions (and this is when I wonder whether the sheer number of acquittals of white cops intensifies or diminishes the pressure to convict Johannes Mehserle, the BART cop who shot Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2009), but neither does it mean that men of color in positions of power don’t operate within the same system. And history has shown us that when the tables are turned, when men of color join the force, even that doesn’t necessarily protect them from being shot and killed by their own colleagues. (See: Officer Omar Edwards, Detective Christopher Ridley, Desmond Robinson.) The point is that in the criminal justice system, and especially where young men of color are concerned, it’s always about race.