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OK, now I’m really confused. The widespread claims that American policing and law enforcement itself are systemically racist have been muddied enough by perhaps the most startling fact about the five Memphis, Tennessee police officers who bodycam and CCTV footage from January 7 show beating an unarmed African-American so brutally that he eventually died: These cops are all African American.

Then yesterday, I read a Friday post from Politico with the eye-catching headline: “Diversity alone won’t change policing’”. Moreover, this claim wasn’t simply the view of one of the racial justice advocates quoted. Author Brakkton Booker stated categorically that “What is becoming evident is that diversifying a police force does not guarantee different outcomes when Black Americans come into contact with police.”

If true, of course, that completely eviscerates the allegations of systemic racism plaguing both policing and law enforcement. For if both white and black police are regularly mistreating African Americans they encounter, then something else must be going on.

Yet the piece got even stranger when it quoted Memphis’ (African American) Police Chief Cerelyn Davis as first agreeing with the above conclusion. The death of Tyre Nichols, she said, “takes off the table that issues and problems in law enforcement is about race, and it is not.”  But then she added, “It does indicate to me that bias might be a factor also.”

What kind of bias, however? Against people like Tyre Nichols? An African American? But that would be by definition racist. Or against African American men? Sounds pretty racist to me, too. Or against young African American men? Again, kinda racist. And why would African American men like the five accused Memphis officers adopt these attitudes?

Unless this is a problem peculiar to Memphis? Or Baltimore (where three of the five policemen implicated but eventually cleared in the 2015 death of another young African American man in their custody were black)?  Yet this development would be pretty strange, too, given, for example, that not only is Memphis’ police chief black, but so is 58 percent of the entire force.   

In fact, how common or rare are unjustified black police killings of other blacks? Does anyone know? Has anyone bothered to look? Not that I can determine.

The racial justice advocate mentioned above, Rashad Robinson, who heads a group called Color of Change, did provide one potentially useful insight when he told Booker “Policing will not get better without diversity, but diversity alone will not change policing. Something like this doesn’t exist without a culture that allows, rewards it, protects it.”

But just as Memphis Chief Davis needs to explain exactly what kind of non-racial “bias” may be at work here, Robinson needs to elaborate on the “culture” he finds so problematic. Is it one that fosters needless violence against suspects no matter  their identity? Yet if so, how come even this apparently happens so seldom?

Specifically, as of 2019, about ten million Americans were being arrested annually. According to an organization called Mapping Police Violence, however, the number of Americans killed by police last year was 1,186. And as best as I could tell, only 219 of all backgrounds were unarmed. (The interactive search engine isn’t easy to work). It’s terrible that anyone who’s unarmed is killed by police, but a number this absolutely and relatively infinitesimal (and don’t forget – people encountered by police can resist violently even when they’re not armed) shouldn’t scream “nation-wide culture of violence” to anyone.

All of which makes me wonder: Is America experiencing a crisis of policing? Or one of talking about policing sensibly?