I woke at 4:00 a.m. to a knock at the door.
Out my window, under the orange glow of the security light, I saw a police car parked in the apartment lot. I shrugged my bathrobe on, peeked through the security hole in my door; I could barely see a blue uniform towards its edge.
I cracked open the door. “Yes?”
No mistakes are neutral . . .“What’s your name?” the cop asked.
I told him—first name only.
“Is there a Dawn here?”
“No?” I said. I know nobody named Dawn.
“Okay.” The cop shrugged. “Must be the wrong apartment.”
Whether he thanked me for my time or apologized for waking me, I don’t recall. I hung my bathrobe on its hook, went back to bed—and realized I felt too shaky to sleep. I read until it was time to get up for work.
The more I think about the encounter, the more it’s troubled me. The incident itself went smoothly. I felt calm throughout, probably because I’d just woken up; the police left quickly; I live in a relatively safe area where the incident is unlikely to repeat itself.
But things could so easily have gone wrong.
A mistake brought the police to my door. Maybe somebody misspoke the address, maybe a dispatcher misread the address. Maybe the cops read my address incorrectly. It’s not important which; what is important is that mistakes are not neutral. When police make mistakes, there may be deadly consequences.
Just this past January, “swatting” claimed the life of an unarmed white man in Kansas. Essentially, “swatting” describes what happens when somebody—to get revenge, often just to troll—makes a deliberately fake emergency call and sends cops, often highly armed, to somebody else’s address.
Tyler Barriss, as part of an ongoing Call of Duty row, called police in Wichita, from his own home in California, claimed he was holding his own family hostage at gunpoint and gave the address of Andrew Finch.
The cops showed up in full riot gear. Finch—a non-gamer and completely innocent—walked outside to see what all the fuss was. Finch was shot dead.
Let me be clear. The main person at fault is Barriss. The cops did the right thing in showing up, heavily armed, to deal with the situation. But the cops did make a mistake. NBC News reports that Finch was shot when he “lower[ed] his hands toward his waist,” where an officer thought he was keeping the gun used in the hostage situation. Finch was killed; then Finch was discovered to be unarmed.
It was a mistake, sure—but that doesn’t make Finch any less dead.
My guess is that the mistaken call which brought the police to my door that morning was a domestic violence call, similar to the report made on Andrew Finch. On the one hand, I’m glad that cops investigate domestic violence incidents. That’s important. On the other, I’m unnerved that they investigated the wrong address. When they showed up at my home in the middle of the night, presumably carrying standard-issue firearms and expecting trouble, they put me in danger. That troubles me. The fact that this kind of mistake happens so easily should trouble all of us—but especially us believers. Our God calls us to a way of life that protects those who are innocent:
He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8 NKJV)
We often think of “justice” as linked with punishment; for instance, if a known criminal is put on trial and sent to prison, we might say justice was done. But the flip side is also true. If justice is those who earned punishment receiving that punishment, then justice is also those who are innocent receiving the fruit of that innocence: a peaceful life and the opportunity to thrive.
Thus, when the cops killed Andrew Finch, even though they did so by mistake, they did not “do justice;” his death was an injustice, though a mistake.
No mistakes are neutral, but mine was fairly benign—a misunderstanding, nothing more; even the mistake of Andrew Finch’s death, though unjust, was apparently genuine. Unfortunately, far too many mistakes are made more dangerous, more deadly, due to racial tensions and even racial bias.
Such racialized injustices are the driving force, and the catalyst, of a recent YA novel, The Hate U Give—and its screen version just released to theaters this weekend.
In its very first chapters, an unarmed black teenager is shot and killed during a routine traffic stop. From the first moment the cop pulls over the black teenager, Khalil—and his friend Starr, the story’s narrator—misunderstandings threaten:
The officer approaches the driver’s door and taps the window. Khalil cranks the handle to roll it down. As if we aren’t blinded enough, the officer beams his flashlight in our faces.
“License, registration, and proof of insurance.”
Khalil breaks a rule—he doesn’t do what the cop wants. “What you pull us over for?”
“License, registration, and proof of insurance.”
“I said, what you pull us over for?”
“Khalil,” I plead. “Do what he said.”
Khalil complies and pulls out his ID; the cop names the reason he pulled Khalil over:
“Your taillight’s broken.”
“So are you gon’ give me a ticket or what?” Khalil asks.
“You know what? Get out of the car, smart guy.”
I’m currently enrolled in a graduate-level sociolinguistics course; the other day, my professor pointed out that linguistic analysis of the Sandra Bland traffic stop suggests that her use of speaking patterns associated with the black community may have led the cop to assume that she was more hostile than she really was. His inability to correctly interpret African American English, rooted in our racialized cultural preferences for an NPR-style voice, contributed to the violence of that stop, and so to Bland’s eventual death.
I see a similar thing happening in The Hate U Give. As Khalil interacts with the cop, the way he talks is characteristic of a black man, raised in a black community. Note that Khalil doesn’t use helping verbs, such as “have.” He doesn’t say, “What have you pulled us over for?”; he says, “What you pull us over for?” Note too that he drops the -ing from the ending of words, so he asks not whether the cop is “going to” but whether the cop “gon’ give [him] a ticket.”
Khalil’s speech is different from standardized English in his pronunciation and syntax, while Sandra Bland’s was different in her intonation, but the upshot was the same: he “sounds black” in a way that may have caused the cop, unjustly, to perceive Khalil as more hostile than he actually was.
In fact, police later ask Starr, the sole witness to the shooting, whether Khalil was “irate” during the stop, a question which assumes that the cop saw Khalil as aggressive and angry and responded accordingly, ultimately killing Khalil. But Starr objects: Khalil was “annoyed, not irate”—a bit put out by the stop, but no more than you or I would be in a similar circumstance.
The cop was mistaken, in other words. Khalil was neither “irate” nor dangerous, but he’s dead all the same, because the cop made a mistake in how he interpreted Khalil’s language choices.
Nor was that the only mistake the cop made. There was a second mistake, more revealing than the first. The cop thought Khalil had a gun. He was wrong. Starr later finds out what it was that the cop took for Khalil’s gun, during a meeting with her lawyer Ms. Ofrah:
Ms. Ofrah opens a folder that’s on her desk, takes a piece of paper out, and pushes it toward me. It’s a photograph of Khalil’s black hairbrush, the one he used in the car.
“That’s the so-called gun,” Ms. Ofrah explains. “Officer Cruise claims he saw it in the car door, and he assumed Khalil was reaching for it. The handle was thick enough, black enough, for him to assume it was a gun.”
“And Khalil was black enough,” Daddy adds.
Khalil died over a f[——] hairbrush.
Khalil was pulled over at night, so as Ms. Ofrah states, it’s just believable that the thick, black handle of the hairbrush, at first glimpse, appeared to the officer as a gun. But as Starr’s father points out, the cop was more likely to think Khalil had a gun, more likely to see the hairbrush as a gun, because Khalil himself was black; it was a mistake possible only because of unjust racial stereotypes about black violence—injustices that should bother us, as believers, very deeply indeed.
The Hate U Give . . . also features an example of policing done right.Whatever mistake brought a cop to my door in the middle of the night was apparently fairly innocent. None of the mistakes that the cop makes with Khalil, from his misunderstanding of the way Khalil talked to his assumption that the black hairbrush was actually a gun, are innocent at all.
In fact, mistake is likely the wrong word for what the cop does; while the cop does not pull Khalil over with the intention of killing him, the assumptions he makes about Khalil, and his consequently violent and deeply unjust reaction to Khalil’s behavior, is, the novel makes clear, rooted in systemic discrimination.
Such prejudices too often make black people the mistaken victims of misplaced police suspicion and violence. In doing so, these mistakes cause innocent people to suffer and exemplify the very injustices that we as Christians should be working against.
The worst part is, it doesn’t have to be this way. The Hate U Give, interestingly, also features an example of policing done right: Starr’s Uncle Carlos. Though black like Starr, Carlos is linked throughout the book with the white community: He lives in the suburbs, he rarely uses African American English, and he works as a cop. But Carlos’s growth over the course of the novel suggests an alternative to persistent discrimination, answering injustice with mercy.
Immediately after the shooting, Carlos is torn. He grieves for his niece’s loss. At the same time, talking with Starr’s parents late one night in their kitchen, he describes Officer Cruise as a “good guy” who understandably “felt threatened,” especially since it was possible that Khalil was selling drugs.
Yet Carlos changes his mind. He comes to see Cruise’s actions as wholly unjust and unconscionable. Explaining his change of heart to Starr, Carlos says,
“You’re the one reason I even became a cop, baby girl. Because I love you and all those folks in the neighborhood . . . . You know, I got pissed listening to that man [Office Cruise’s father, who has just given a TV interview defending his son] talk about you and Khalil like that, but it made me consider the comments I made about Khalil that night in your parents’ kitchen.”
“I know you were eavesdropping, Starr. Don’t act brand-new.”
I smirk. Uncle Carlos said “brand-new.” “You mean when you called Khalil a drug dealer?”
He nods. “Even if he was, I knew that boy. Watched him grow up with you. He was more than any bad decision he made,” he says. “I hate that I let myself fall into that mind-set of trying to rationalize his death. And at the end of the day, you don’t kill someone for opening a car door. If you do, you shouldn’t be a cop.”
A few things are noteworthy about Carlos’s change of heart. First, the word “brand-new” is African American slang; this is why Starr smirks. The fact that Carlos uses it positions him as part of the African American community. African American English is also, throughout the book, the code Starr is the most comfortable with, so Carlos is switching into the habits that put his niece at ease. It’s a language choice that, in contrast with the racialized misunderstandings that killed Khalil, reduces the likelihood of mistakes and promotes mutual understanding.
[I]t’s worth thinking about what humility looks like, both in police work and . . . in our own attitude toward police error and social injustices.Nor is it Carlos’s words alone that position him as a member of the African American community. Carlos loves Starr; he loves the Garden Heights neighborhood; like Starr, he grew up there. His familiarity with the neighborhood and interest in its well-being drives his policing. That same familiarity extends to Khalil, importantly. Carlos “watched [Khalil] grow up with” Starr; he probably knew Khalil as well as any good parent knows their child’s playmates; and he calls Khalil a “boy” because that’s how Carlos remembers him: young, innocent. Though his role as a policeman gives Carlos an apparent authority over the Garden Heights neighborhood, his own history and language call him back, positioning him inside the community, able to see the people there—to see Khalil—as they are.
We who grew up in Sunday school are likely to think of mercy in terms of its narrow theological definition. Yet Carlos’s stance toward Khalil is also one of mercy, grounded as it is in Carlos’s compassion for Khalil and interest in his well-being. While Carlos grants the possibility that Khalil sold drugs, and does not excuse it, he also puts that action against the context of his fuller, more accurate view of Khalil, a view drawn from Starr’s friendship with Khalil and from his own participation, linguistic or otherwise, in the neighborhood where Khalil lived. This “insider’s view” lets Carlos see the truth about who Khalil is: that he was “more than” his mistakes, a human being killed in error. This ability to see somebody, not as a flattened racial stereotype, but as a whole person with a history of their own, and to interact with them accordingly, is mercy. In showing such mercy to Khalil, Carlos models an alternative to the injustices perpetuated by cops such as Office Cruise.
Unfortunately, the mercy that Uncle Carlos shows, the mercy that we as believers are called to love, is not yet common practice. What is far too common is for black people, like Khalil, to be unjustly accused, injured, and even killed out of mistaken prejudices. Those of us who are white cannot fully appreciate what it means to be a black person affected by such misunderstandings. But that doesn’t give us license to shrug our shoulders and do nothing. Indeed, if my own mistaken encounter with the cops has given me anything, it’s given me a conviction that we need to change the way we, as individuals and a culture, respond to these mistakes.
So how do we respond? The passage in Micah suggests an answer: humility. Note the parallel structure of the verse, each line beginning with an infinitive: do justice, love mercy, walk humbly; within this structure, humility is the climactic moment, the way in which both justice and mercy may be fulfilled.
If we, and the police who serve in our communities, are to act justly—if we are to respond with mercy and kindness toward those who are not like us—it’s worth thinking about what humility looks like, both in police work and, perhaps more importantly, in our own attitude toward police error and social injustices.
One key change that humility calls for is holding police accountable for their mistakes. Taking a job means committing to do the job right. I teach for a living; if I make a mistake—say, I accidentally give one student’s graded paper to a different student—I will reap consequences; if I make the mistake repeatedly, I will be fired. It should be no different for police. The police who mistakenly arrest a person, hurt a person, or shoot a person should face consequences proportionate to the mistake made. Yes, it takes humility to admit error, but in doing so, and in holding people who make mistakes accountable, we take an essential first step toward interracial harmony and justice.
Holding police accountable should also cause us to rethink how much weaponry police carry. Police in other countries often don’t carry guns at all. Though many American cops actually do need guns, perhaps they don’t need the military surplus items they’re often equipped with. More troubling, according to Vox and the Washington Post, “There’s a lot of evidence that police are way too quick to deploy their militarized units,” often even “raid[ing] the wrong homes on bad, little, or no evidence” and “terrorizing innocent people.” Cops are going to make mistakes—some innocent, some born out of racial animus and stereotyping. Regardless, those mistakes will have less deadly consequences if the police don’t show up at people’s houses in military surplus gear. We can at least blunt the impact of police error and racial bias by demilitarizing the police force.
Second, humility also calls us to rethink the way we respond when the police make a mistake, especially the kind of bad faith mistakes that are rooted in systemic discrimination.
Too often, when a black person is pulled over or shot unfairly by police, we as Christians give our sympathy first to the cop. We value justice and righteousness, and correctly so; but we enact that value by siding with a person who, whatever his or her badge symbolizes, has committed injustice. We say we care about human suffering, but we do a remarkably poor job of demonstrably caring when a person of color is the victim of police error and bias. Tamara Johnson, a black Christian who recently left her white evangelical church because of its lack of meaningful response to racism, points out that sadly, white people in the church are often “disinterested” in hearing about instances of black people facing injustice, including injustice at the hands of the police; leaders and churchgoers “glossed over real and present threats to people of color in our country,” ignoring the pain of black people after victims such as “Philando Castile and Alton Sterling died.” It’s time for us as believers to, in humility, own up to the fact that our stance toward police violence has too often sided with injustice rather than mercy, to listen to our black brothers and sisters in Christ, and give our sympathies to the real victims of racialized misunderstandings and prejudice.
Shortly before I read The Hate U Give, Antwon Rose was killed by a cop. In the days after, a (white) friend of mine shared a note on her Facebook page, written by a black woman. The black woman pointed out that when a young man like Antwon is killed, white people often comb through news reports looking for facts, as though either the cop or the black victim may be somehow vindicated from afar. Yet black people, she noted, grieve collectively. Even though they may not have known the victim personally, may not even have lived in the same area of the country, they recognize him as one of theirs and mourn his death.
It strikes me that, whatever steps we take to prevent police error, this response is a sound one, which we—especially we white people—would do well to humbly emulate. As Christians, regardless of our race, we are called to love not only those who are like us, but also those who are unlike us and to long for a world in which every tongue, tribe, people, and nation may be one.
We live out that calling when we acknowledge the pain that police error and prejudice has on innocent victims, and when we come together, across racial boundaries, to prevent further mistakes, to mourn for victims, and to form communities grounded in the love and sympathy of Christ for needy people.
Sure, police errors, whether innocent or not, will exist so long as we live in a fallen world. But we can do better. We can support each other, protect and trust each other, and celebrate the humanity of every diverse, wondrous person. We can work to limit police authority, and equally important, we can at the same time work to acknowledge our own errors and move past them: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.