True Crime

"A thousand times a year – three times every day – a police officer kills a citizen they swore to protect. About half the time, the deceased was unarmed. More often than not, they’re people of color."

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“America loves a crime story, because America is a crime story” – promo for a recent season of Fargo.

Sure, that’s a clever marketing campaign to get you to binge-watch more TV, but it also has the ring of deeper truth. Violence was part of our nation’s story from the first. Crime is built into our foundation. It’s part of our DNA.

Our forebears – at least those from a certain class of colonial landowners and settlers – pillaged and enslaved their way to power and prosperity without thinking too hard about consequences. The bloodstains on our collective conscience don’t fade away easily, but they’re papered over by a culture that fashions heroes from violent confrontation: Old West gunslingers, criminals, cowboys, rum-runners, bank robbers and mafiosos are all elevated in our cultural myths.

So it’s no coincidence that America can’t seem to get enough of violence and crime. “Reality” TV shows like Cops, 20/20, 48 Hours, Dateline, Crime Stories with Nancy Grace and Live PD; scripted shows like Law and Order, NCIS, CSI and even The Purge; local newscasts filled with nightly shootings and special “crime insider” segments; true crime podcasts like Serial and legions of imitations. Murder and mayhem reign, unceasing, all day, every day.

The truest true crime stories come to us lately from bystander cell phone video or police body-worn cameras. They show us variations on an awful, tragic theme: Cops killing citizens, on a seemingly endless loop. It often involves bullets, but sometimes it only takes a knee, or taser, or baton, or chokehold to effect the same outcome. A thousand times a year – three times every day – a police officer kills a citizen they swore to protect. About half the time, the deceased was unarmed. More often than not, they’re people of color.

These are often crimes, to be sure, and they conjure ghosts that many perpetrators and enablers would prefer to remain buried. The killings raise echoes of original racial sins that still stain our past. They aren’t “mistakes” or “training failures” or “split-second decisions” gone wrong – they’re legally sanctioned murder. They’re the boot of the state asserting its dominance on people without a voice, and without the political capital to do much about it besides film it. They’re the politics and culture of fear. They’re the lie of “law and order.”

They’re the lie that someone fleeing a warrant tried to run over a cop, when the officer actually initiated contact by standing in the path of the oncoming vehicle. The lie that a man was breaking and entering holding a gun, when he was holding his cell phone and texting his daughter from his car. The lie that injury and death resulted from collision with a tree, when the bruises were instead administered by batons at the end of a police chase. The lie that a white teenager with a smoking semi-automatic weapon must be engaged in self-defense, when a black teen in the same street would be called a murderer and shot down where he stood. The lie that trading a counterfeit $20 bill for a man’s life will lead to law and order. All these lies were caught on camera.

Even cops with body-worn cameras seem to forget they have them on at times, acting with impunity simply because they’re used to that privilege. They can, so they do. The unqualified immunity we give law enforcement breeds impunity, and it’s time we admitted it is being abused and revoke the privilege we’ve granted unquestioningly for too long. We’ve seen too many videos of cops falsely shouting: “Stop resisting!” or “Drop the gun!” to do otherwise.

What’s the connection between our fascination with crime stories and police killings of civilians? It’s violence, often gun violence. It’s anger and grievance and entitlement; it’s a lack of compassion for others. It’s objectification and dehumanization, and it’s fear of the other. It’s all of these things, and it’s become an epidemic in the past several years, enabled by a politics and a former president that encouraged incivility. “Beat the hell out of them,” Trump famously said of people exercising their first amendment rights.

Gun violence is also way up in 2021. There were almost 300 mass shootings in just the first half of this year. Ten thousand people have died from guns in 2021 already – about one every twenty minutes. The evening news is so full of mass shootings they become a blur of cities and states we can’t even keep track of. President Joe Biden has signed two sets of Executive Orders to try and stem the tide of gun violence, but they’re having minimal impact.

In red states and blue ones, disgruntled employees, drug dealers, gang enforcers and unbalanced individuals have easy access to high-capacity weapons that do enormous damage. Some states are trying to make them even easier to get. It defies reason and seems designed to make us less safe, all while blaming the White House for rising crime rates. Murder and violence are up so…let’s relax gun laws? How is that logical or sensible?

The right is bought and paid for by the gun lobby, and it pushes its agenda by selling fear, warning of crime invading cities and suburbs. Of course, when it’s politically expedient, as with the coronavirus and masking, the message changes: “We can’t live in fear, masks and vaccines aren’t for us.” It’s as if the right wants us to be afraid of the wrong things, if it helps its reelection chances.

It’s time to make cops more accountable, qualify their immunity, make bodycam footage public and stop the lies. It’s time to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. It’s time for more compassion in our communities and our politics. And it’s time we free ourselves from the gun lobby’s cynical agenda. Crime stories don’t often end well.

[Note: This lightly edited story originally ran at Three Hots One Cot, an excellent website written and run by federal prisoner Daniel Rosen.]

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Daniel Rosen is a writer and criminal justice reform advocate currently serving a five-year sentence at the Greensville Correctional Center in Virginia. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he'll reside upon his release from prison in October, 2021. Prior to prison he spent fifteen years in public service with the Departments of State and Defense. He holds a M.A. from Tufts University and B.A. from UCLA.