Mistaken identity

By Michelle Chen Jun 02, 2009

The death of Officer Omar Edwards strikes a weary nerve in New York City—one that grows more raw with each racially loaded police shooting. In 1940, a strikingly similar story made the headlines: a black officer, John A. Holt, 31, in plain clothes, was pursuing a burglary suspect in his Harlem neighborhood (not too far from the scene of the Edwards shooting). During the chase, two white officers approached and ordered Holt to drop his weapon, then shot him as he turned. The next day, the New York Times declared: “Negro, Off Duty and Chasing a Burglar, Felled By Shots of Men from Radio Car.” According to the news report, after questioning witnesses, including the shooters, investigators “said they had found evidence of negligence,” and the death was written off as “an unfortunate situation” in which the officers who killed Holt had “used their best judgment in the performance of their duties.” The “best judgment” rationale has worn thin over the years, as the credo of “protect and serve” has been hollowed by a continual hail of police bullets. The Times archives turns up other instances of "friendly fire" in the 1990s involving officers of color, such as the shooting of plainclothes transit cop Derwin Pannell. Race was often a muted subtext in the official narrative. To the communities freighted with heavy police surveillance every day, the issue of racial bias—whether exercised on impulse or embedded in the structure of law enforcement—eclipses all the legal rationalizations. Despite efforts by the New York City Police Department to improve its public image and promote “diversity” and “sensitivity,” tensions between police and communities of color continue to thicken, especially when official probes and court trials fail to shatter the Blue Wall. Daily News columnist Errol Louis said that while the facts surrounding Edwards’ death are still emerging, the stage had long been set for the lethal clash.

One news headline described Edwards as "mistaken for a thug"—a reminder of the slurs cops throw around on the job and off. People get classified as thugs, perps, skells, punks and worse. An onslaught of gangsta rap and other cultural garbage bolsters the bias. We pay a heavy price by letting racist imagery, words and accusations slosh around society unchecked and unchallenged. In the tense, split-second needed to separate a cop from a crook on a dark street, those myths may have cost a good man his life.

Yet the implication that a cop’s life is intrinsically worth more than that of the “crook” he was mistaken for, demands scrutiny. In a climate charged with racial animosity, where some lives are valued more than others, the potential for an explosive encounter lurks on every sidewalk. The tragedy of Omar Edwards points to the more insidious tragedy surrounding the neighborhood he left behind—where anyone and everyone seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Image: Patrick Andrade / Newsday