In Fatal Police Encounters, Cops' Fear Is Killing Black People

05/27/2015 10:28 am ET | Updated May 23, 2016

CNN reported that Cleveland officer Michael Brelo was ruled not guilty for his part in the shooting death of Black couple Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams.

The encounter started on November 29, 2012, when officers mistook Russell's car backfiring for gunfire. Russell then lead law enforcement on a 20 mile, 60 police car chase, ending in a middle school parking lot. He crashed into one of the police cars, and according to prosecutors, approximately 137 shots were fired at the couple's vehicle in eight seconds. The final 15 shots came when Officer Brelo stood on the hood of car and unloaded into the windshield. This happened after police stopped shooting, and the couple's car was pinned in. However, neither Russell nor Williams had a weapon.

Judge John P. O'Donnell ruled for Brelo's innocence, stating that the officer's actions were a "constitutionally reasonable effort to end an objectively reasonable perception that he and the others present were threatened by Russell and Williams with imminent serious bodily harm."

After reading details of the incident, there are lingering questions: Why didn't Brelo and his colleagues assume the couple was evading pursuit because they were being shot at by the police? Would that be an "objectively reasonable perception"? But like many high-profile fatal police encounters between officers and unarmed Black suspects, fear sparked the escalation. And fear may have been the trick that acquitted Brelo, because he said the magic words:

"I've never been so afraid in my life. I thought my partner and I would be shot and that we were going to be killed."

We tend to inflate the level of threat when we are afraid in highly tense situations. But the problem is intensified because Blackness, in and of itself, is seen as a weapon. What is it about Blackness that makes "good" and "normal" people so terrified? What is it about Blackness that assumes 137 bullets is a "constitutionally reasonable effort" to end a perceived threat?

Blackness scares people.

It's why Darren Wilson described Mike Brown as a "demon", and we readibly accepted the improbable story that Brown charged through bullets at Wilson in a Incredible Hulk-like blind rage. It's why Amadou Diallo pulling out his wallet sparked 41 shots. It's why we can be convinced to believe Freddie Gray injured himself. It's why we easily interpret Black suspects running away as evidence of wrongdoing instead of frightened people running away from bullets. It's why white male suspects can even point guns at police and don't get fired upon 137 times. It's why an officer can stand on the hood of a car and unload on an unarmed couple, and we go to astonishing lengths to explain what that he was just "doing his job."

As these instances of officers killing unarmed Black people continue to be a national lightning rod, what we've learned is that a spoonful of fear goes a long way.

George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing Trayvon Martin on the basis of self-defense. 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed for holding a pellet gun. Off-duty cop Dante Servin accidentally murdered Rekia Boyd with an unregistered firearm because he felt threatened when her friend Antonio Cross raised a cell phone (Servin later said he avoided being "police death statistic" and called the unarmed Antonio Cross "a would-be cop killer"). Officer Stacey Koon, one of the cops tried in the Rodney King beating, compared King to a "monster" and "the Tasmanian devil". Officer Mathew Griffin, who shot and killed Kendrec McDade in Pasadena, said McDade scared "the crap out of me". Three detectives fired 50 rounds into Sean Bell's car because one yelled "gun".

These officers' testimonies often read like petrified men shooting at monsters in the abyss. But unlike boogeyman nightmares, this fear will destroy the lives more Black men, women, and children if we don't deal with it.

Implicit bias is as sinister as obvious racism, because it operates undetected. We fail to interrogate how our fears of Black people, especially Black men, caveats the humanity of an entire segment of America. In order to receive the benefit of the doubt from judges, juries, the media, you, or I, officers who kill unarmed Blacks merely need to use trigger words and phrases like "thug" or "afraid" or "feared for my life" or "reached for his waistband" or "I thought he had a gun."

The immense power of fear is that it veils reality and clouds reason. Racialized fears not only devalue Black life, but also shield the majority of America the problem of police brutality which spans race and class lines. esearcher Sean McElwee estimated that only 1 in every 250 police shootings leads to an officer being committed a crime. In fact, (though FBI date is often incomplete) it has been reported that police have killed a higher total number of unarmed whites than Blacks.

So though we are giving police license to kill Black people without consequence, we overlook the wider trend in misuse of state power. The fear and racism behind the idea that Black people deserved what comes to them is blocking the vast majority of Americans from not only Black humanity, but to the fact that they are getting killed as well.

Many will assume the central accusation of this piece is "if I'm scared of Black people, that means I'm racist". However, whether you, or I, or the officers in question personally hate Black people is entirely besides the point. Hate doesn't need to be in the calculus to know whether or not an individual recognizes the humanity in another or at least fosters implicit bias that manifests itself in real world conflict. The fact of the matter is frightened police are killing people, and doing so with impunity because the suspects in question scare us as well.

The vanguard of trolls and racists will stampede from the woodworks to congratulate Brelo on a job well done. The "post-racial" rainbow brigade will saturate social media to explain why people such as myself need to stop "pulling the race card" in a society where racism is Beetle Juice. These are the same people who are ready to slam "black-on-black crime" statistics on the table at the slightest provocation that anyone besides Black people are a part of America's problems.

As America tells Blacks be "objective" in cases where they are murdered, Black folk are pleading for a nation to see that these occurrences wouldn't happen if America looked at them objectively. We are told to "wait to see all the evidence", when even in clear cases of wrongdoing, officers are set free as Black bodies were prepared for coffins, and activists' voices go hoarse from screaming "Black Lives Matter!" America is wrestling with deep racial divide when it comes to trusting the police, and each verdict seems to widen the gap.

My own encounters with the police have varied: a friendly smile and good morning, an inquiry about my grades and telling me to work hard in school, letting me off with a warning for a busted taillight, a quick ticket for talking on my cellphone while driving, being told to go back to "your side of the tracks", being stopped and questioned while I'm walking my dog, being questioned for sitting in my mother's truck in front of our house, being the only Black person in a group of loitering teenagers and overhearing a cop ask my white friends if I was "trying to sell them drugs", being watched because officers wanted to make sure we, three black guys, weren't "messing with" the white male hanging with us (then telling my friend "don't be a smart ass" when he asked the officer what the problem was), getting a gun pointed directly at my head because a police officer (who claimed he received reports of people breaking into cars in the parking lot) yelled to see my hands, but I was scared to pull out the party flyers I was holding too quickly, because they were black and so was I.

Through life experience and observations, I learned whether or not I think I'm scary or not couldn't matter less. As a Black person, a Black man in America, I've grown to understand that the fear of me can be deadly for me, but also that I could channel fear to stay alive. The fear I have of law enforcement is a survival instinct I lack the energy to explain to others who don't share my experiences. Because neither they nor their arguments can shield me from the fact that if someone is afraid of me, a combination of bad luck and "constitutionally reasonable efforts" can make me a hashtag.

"It is galling indeed to have stood so long, hat in hand, waiting for Americans to grow up enough to realize that you do not threaten them." - James Baldwin