I was downtown today and crossed paths with Police Commissioner Ray Kelly leaving City Hall. I can only hope that he was there because he was being held accountable for the deadly consequences of white racism by the New York City Police Department. In the most recent example of this, a white cop shot and killed an off-duty black cop he assumed was a criminal.
The off-duty and out-of-uniform man who was killed was Omar Edwards, pictured here with his wife and two small children (photo from NYDaily News).
Edwards had seen someone – an actual criminal – breaking into a car and decided to pursue him, even though he was off duty. The suspect breaking into the car started to run away and Edward chased him with his gun drawn. It was at this point that a white cop, later identified as Andrew Dutton, saw Edwards, yelled “Police! Stop!” and when Edwards turned with his gun still drawn, Dutton shot and killed him.
The local news here is filled with reports about this story, as it should be. Unfortunately, the reporting on the story mostly obfuscates what happened rather than illuminates it. The incident is being called variously: “friendly fire” and a case of “mistaken identity” by the mainstream press. What this leaves out is the crucial fact of race.
Why did Dutton assume that Edwards was a suspect? The plain fact of it is because Edwards was a black man and that Dutton interpreted that to mean that Edwards was, therfore, a suspect. In New York City, racism is a persistent reality of urban life. What that means for the city’s black and brown men is that they are much more likely to be targeted by police for “frisking,” arrest, or assault. Within this context, hard-working black men like Mr. Edwards often rely on uniforms, whether as police, bus drivers or the ‘uniform’ of a college student, to protect them from this nearly constant onslaught from police. Without his police uniform, Mr. Edwards looked like just another suspect in E. Harlem to Mr. Dutton.
Surely, part of this tragedy – and it certainly is a terrible tragedy – is Mr. Dutton’s inability to see beyond the white racial frame that blinded him to the possibility that Mr. Edwards might be something other than a suspect.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not accusing Mr. Dutton of being any more racist than any other white cop; what I am saying is that Mr. Dutton’s worldview was shaped by his experience and racial background in such a way that it predisposed him to assume that Edwards was a suspect rather than a fellow officer. Details are coming out now about Mr. Dutton’s life, and one of these is that he lives in the predominantly white suburban Long Island. Choosing to live in a white suburb while policing a predominantly non-white city doesn’t necessarily make one more racist, but it does little to challenge the predominant white racial frame. Perhaps if, as community activists have long argued, Mr. Dutton were required to live in the city he might have known Mr. Edwards, or at the very least, hesistated before he made a deadly assumption he did.
This case is more than merely “mistaken identity” on the part of Mr. Dutton, but rather it is part of systemic racism that black police officers face again and again. As one unnamed source quote in the NYDaily News says:
“This is always a black cop’s fear, that he’d be mistaken for a [suspect],” a source said.
What this source is saying is that he recognizes that if a case of “mistaken identity” happens, it’s going to happen in only one direction. That is, it’s going to be a black cop that’s shot because he was thought to be a suspect. This is not routinely happening to white cops. As Kai Wright at The Root notes, this is part of a consistent with a larger pattern:
This is a pattern for NYPD’s confrontations with black men: Massive, lethal overreactions that turn difficult situations into disastrous ones. And it’s a pattern for police violence against black men nationally. They get scared; we get killed.
It’s (long past) time for this to end. Mayor Bloomberg should hold Commissioner Kelly responsible for the actions of officers on the NYPD. And, even more than that, we need to challenge the white racial frame and the deadly consequences of white racism.