A Mississippi councilman rightly drew criticism last week when he suggested that his constituents should "throw rocks and bricks and bottles" at police cars involved in high-speed pursuits through their neighborhoods. But his incendiary language overshadowed a legitimate concern about police behavior.
Third Ward Councilman Kenneth Stokes, who is black, says his controversial Dec. 31 remarks were intended to call attention to the racist nature of certain car chases in Jackson, Mississippi. At a press conference this week, Stokes said his earlier comments were provoked by a pursuit that began in a neighboring district before tearing through the streets of a predominantly black community in Jackson.
“Race. Race is a factor, and the blatant disregard for the public safety of innocent children and elderly citizens in unlawful chases by outside jurisdictions, in the inner city of Jackson neighborhoods,” Stokes said, according to The Clarion-Ledger, a Jackson newspaper.
On Christmas Eve, police were involved in a high-speed chase that flew through Stokes' ward. The suspect, an alleged shoplifter, was accused of committing the crime nearly 10 miles from town.
Stokes said the incident highlighted a longstanding issue in his community of police responding to minor crimes with unnecessary severity. The councilman said some suspects in these chases were guilty of misdemeanors, but that they weren't "murderers or bank robbers." He also suggested that cops don't usually go barreling down the street in white neighborhoods in pursuit of small-time criminals.
Obviously, no one should throw rocks, bricks, bottles or anything else at police or police vehicles (though for what it's worth, it remains perfectly legal to film them). But despite his terrible suggestion, Stokes may actually have a point. High-speed police chases have killed thousands of innocent people across the U.S. in the past 40 years, and a 2015 USA Today report revealed that the FBI tends to vastly underreport police deaths in these cases as well.
The Justice Department has long identified high-speed police chases as incredibly hazardous, and has even attempted to scale them back. In a 1990 report, the department called such chases “the most dangerous of all ordinary police activities.” Amid increasing scrutiny, many law enforcement agencies have adopted more restrictive pursuit policies.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said 10,642 people were killed between 1982 and 2013 in these incidents. They include suspects, officers and even young bystanders, like the two black children fatally struck by a police cruiser during a high-speed pursuit in Detroit in June.
Jason Williams, a criminal justice professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University who spent time researching in Ferguson, Missouri, told The Huffington Post that he believes these sorts of police tactics take a disproportionate toll on communities of color.
“This is part of the overall expansion of the police state, and it has a negative impact on black lives,” Williams said. “The punishment that we go through today is so similar to how we were treated during slavery.”
Williams also said that the police activity in Stokes’ ward was out of proportion to the crimes allegedly being committed.
“High-speed pursuits for misdemeanors? It’s incredible,” he said. “First, it’s a waste of public funding. Second, it’s very unsafe for police cars to be zooming through the streets [at] high speed, just for misdemeanors.”
The response to Stokes' remarks from state and local officials has been overwhelmingly negative. The Jackson City Council denounced his comments, the city’s mayor backed away from Stokes’ plea and the state’s governor said he would ask the state’s attorney general about legal measures for “inciting violence,” even though Stokes later insisted he wasn’t actually calling people to action.
Law enforcement officials in the Jackson region were equally unforgiving.
Bryan Bailey, sheriff of neighboring Rankin County, placed responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the suspects.
“They came over here and committed a crime,” Bailey said of the people whom officers were chasing into Stokes’ ward.
The antagonism between Bailey and Stokes is easy enough to see. The two have exchanged words in the press in recent days, with Bailey challenging Stokes’ position and Stokes replying by calling Bailey a “dumb bastard.”
On the other hand, Stokes has received a small amount of support from Lee Vance, Jackson's chief of police. Vance has said that he disagrees with the violent tone of Stokes' remarks, but he did tell WJTV that he too was concerned about high-speed pursuits passing through the city.
“High-speed chases coming into the city of Jackson, by outside agencies, pursuing misdemeanor suspects, is an unnecessary risk," Vance told the station this week. "I prefer that those chases not be conducted inside the city limits of Jackson."
Amid the current national conversation surrounding race relations and police tactics, police officers have said they constantly feel under pressure or attacked. And the Fraternal Order of Police has lobbied for years to make violence against law enforcement a federal crime.
Calling for physical violence against police, as Stokes gave every appearance of doing, is patently unacceptable. But the underlying issue he was trying to illuminate is legitimate, says Timothy Welbeck, an attorney and professor of African American Studies at Temple University.
Welbeck said that cops' willingness to chase suspects at dangerously high speeds shows a cavalier disregard for the safety of people in these neighborhoods of color.
“These things don’t happen in Caucasian or affluent neighborhoods. If you want to measure it by class or by race, you don’t see that in other neighborhoods,” Welbeck told HuffPost. “On its face, this is indicative of the overuse of force by police officers that has been documented for decades. Whenever we have cases of police brutality or overuse of force by law enforcement officers, it disproportionately hurts African-Americans.”
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