Wednesday, October 19, 2016

"Manner of Walking", Deborah Danner & Chief Cunningham's Apology

Walking While Black? Larnie Thomas
The recent release of cell phone video of an African-American Minnesota man named Larnie Thomas being arrested in broad daylight for walking along a street by white plain clothes police officer Tim Olson certainly isn't the most egregious example of highly questionable and excessive use of authority by members of American law enforcement to go viral.

But it does serve as a sobering and troubling reminder of how entrenched racial bias, subtle or not, on the part of some U.S. police officers, can turn even the most routine of activities into something perceived as criminal or dangerous - based on a distorted perception clouded by an individual's race.

There's nothing to suggest that officer Olson is a "racist".

But it's important to try and understand what prompted him to stop his unmarked vehicle and confront Thomas.

Remember this was a pedestrian, an American citizen who was walking along the street minding his own business who'd committed no offense.
Now if Thomas had been acting erratically, or was posing an immediate danger to himself or other drivers by, for example, walking in traffic along a major highway where walking is illegal, Olson stopping the guy would make sense.

But by all accounts Xerxes Avenue in Edina, Minnesota where Thomas was walking is a quiet two-lane street that runs through a quiet tree-lined neighborhood of suburban homes - and the posted speed limit is 30 MPH.

So it begs the question, was the stop simply a pretense by Olson to "check" Thomas out and see what he was doing? Did Olson think Thomas "seemed out of place"?

Ferguson Municipal Court / revenue factory
It's been well established that a number of American police departments have created intentionally ambiguous low-level "offenses" as a legal pretense to be able to justify randomly stopping and questioning: or even detaining or arresting someone.

Remember the infamous "manner of walking" citation used by the notoriously racially-biased Ferguson, Missouri Police Department? Almost sounds funny, but it's real.

If you recall, a 2015 Department of Justice investigation found that 95% of people charged with Ferguson's "Manner of Walking in Roadway" municipal ordinances were African-American.

In the wake of the global outrage over the Ferguson police working in collusion with the local courts to systematically use minor infractions levied against African-Americans to create more revenue, those ordinances have been quietly removed or modified.

If you look closely at Ferguson's municipal codes regarding pedestrian infractions, Sec. 44-344 "which pertained to manner of walking along roadway", Sec.  44-341 "which pertained to crossing at right angles" and Sec. 44-349 "which pertained to use of right half of crosswalks", were all "modified" by a municipal ordinance on April 26, 2016.

Officer Olson arresting
Thomas for walking
But to get back to Larnie Thomas' flagrantly bogus arrest in Edina, even though officer Olson initially claimed that he stopped Thomas for walking in the middle of the street, the woman who videotaped the widely-viewed arrest footage contradicted the officer's claims.

According to an article about the incident by Mike Mullen posted on, Janet Rowles, a motorist who is white, intentionally pulled over to film the confrontation because she was concerned that Thomas would be unfairly treated by police officers "because of his ethnicity."

She told reporters that she passed Thomas in her vehicle as he was walking, and she says he was "literally walking down the white line that marks the shoulder" - and he couldn't walk on the sidewalk because of construction taking place.

Had Rowles not filmed the incident and spoken up on behalf of Thomas, he may well have been jailed and charged.

But in the wake of the video showing how Thomas was unfairly manhandled by Olson and another officer, the charges (which included disorderly conduct) were quickly dropped and the local city council has apologized for the incident.

But the kind of racial bias demonstrated by officer Olson before and during Thomas' arrest is still rampant and deeply ingrained within the minds of some police officers in departments all over the country.

Local activist groups including the local chapter of the NAACP have called for the department to release a detailed plan on how to handle such incidents in the future, and have demanded that Olson be suspended without pay pending an investigation to determine if and how racial bias played a role in Thomas being stopped and arrested.

Last night in the Bronx, that kind of internalized bias unquestionably played a role in the death of a 66-year-old mentally disabled African-American woman named Deborah Danner.

Deborah Danner, 66
The incident occurred last night so complete details of what happened haven't yet been released, but as NY 1 reported, police were called to the scene early Tuesday evening in response to a woman acting erratically in an apartment in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx.

Witnesses who live in the building are quoted as saying Danner has exhibited strange behavior before including (allegedly) talking or yelling to herself.

When police arrived they managed to persuade her to put down a pair of scissors she was holding, but at some point she picked up a bat and supposedly tried to swing it at an NYPD sergeant  - who then shot her twice in the torso.

Now it wouldn't be fair to make a judgement about the sergeant's actions, maybe he felt threatened.

But both New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and the newly appointed Commissioner of the NYPD James O'Neill were quick to condemn the shooting as a mistake.

DeBalsio conceded that "Something went horribly wrong here."

Not to be a smart ass but yeah, I'd say a lot of people are wondering why armed police officers responding in force to reports of a woman with an established record of mental issues didn't think to try and use a taser to subdue the woman.

Maybe that's just me. I'm not bashing the cops or anything, I'm just calling into question their decision to think that a loaded handgun was the correct answer to confront a 66-year-old woman with a record of mental disabilities inside her own home.

Hearing voices and talking to themselves? Sounds a lot like garden-variety paranoid schizophrenia to me; if these cops showed up and found Danner inside a room waving a pair of scissors why not just shut the door and call a family member or a mental health professional to deal with an individual like that?

Wellesley PD Chief Terry Cunningham
It's not like those cops were blindly walking into a hostage-situation inside a bank being held up by some kind of heavily-armed posse.

If you're confronting a mentally-ill person inside their own bedroom waving a pair of scissors, or a bat, why not just shut the door and wait for someone trained to deal with situations like that?

Sadly the incidents in Edina, Minnesota and the Bronx, New York seem to have overshadowed a much more positive reaction to the problem of police bias by one of the largest and most influential police unions in America.

As NPR reported, earlier this week Wellesley, Massachusetts Police Chief Terry Cunningham, who serves as the head of the International Association of Police Chiefs, issued an unprecedented apology on behalf of the union "for historical mistreatment of communities of color".

When the historical significance of a nationwide union of high-level police officials taking the rare opportunity to issue a public statement acknowledging the need to address a "historic cycle of mistrust" gets overshadowed by actions that demonstrate the extent of racial bias that still exists within the law enforcement community, it's not just irony.

It's a symptom of a far deeper issue that continues to impact the dignity and lives of American citizens.

And so 66-year-old Deborah Danner joins the list of The Counted, one of 863 people in the United States to be killed by members of U.S. law enforcement in 2016 - just one of 50 in the month of October alone.

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