06 April 2015
Do black lives matter in Albany NY?
For a moment last week I thought my home town of Albany, the New York state capital, would start getting national attention. The first signs were there; as I passed City Hall last Thursday night several dozen people were holding a protest vigil and "Black Lives Matter" signs were out. The night before, a former high school basketball star with a history of mental issues died of a heart attack shortly after being tazed by police under circumstances that remain largely unknown. There hasn't been any real follow-up to the Thursday vigil, however, and local civil-rights activists, who have a good relationship with municipal government compared to Ferguson MO, have appealed for calm and good faith. There's reason for both if you assume that a resort to tasers meant that no one meant to kill the man. Much will depend on what we learn about why police confronted the doomed man, who reportedly sealed his fate by becoming "combative." The worst-case scenario for the cops or from a civic-peace perspective would be if the man appears to have been profiled or if the incident proves to have been a case of petty "broken windows" style policing. But for the moment no one in Albany appears eager to rush to that conclusion. Nevertheless, many will want the cops to show very good reason for confronting the man and precipitating his demise, and this wouldn't be an unreasonable request. Based on what we know now, the incident proves that nearly any existing technique for "stopping" a suspect comes with serious risks to the suspect. From one perspective, people who resist arrest implicitly accept that risk and certainly must share in the responsibility for any bad outcome they suffer. From another, this episode only further underscores the urgent necessity for techniques and training that minimize the risk of death for suspects from those who are neither judges, jurors or executioners yet are empowered to stop crime. If critics of police appear to downplay the personal responsibility of those who recently have died "tragically," it's because they're careful about assigning responsibility to the dead when cops really aren't supposed to kill. Albanians may show a more forgiving attitude under more arguably "tragic" circumstances, but a dead suspect still means that something went wrong with the suspect and the police, both of whom are accountable to all of us.