Feeling the Feelings About Police Homicide

Jo Ann Hardesty

As the 10th anniversary of the Kendra James homicide approaches on May 5, the community plans to gather in a memorial vigil. I was looking for a photograph of Kendra and found myself at The Empathy Blog. The author, in 2012, critiqued transcripts from a community forum that I moderated soon after Kendra’s 2003 death at the hands of Portland Police. The post evoked in me a disturbing sense I get when those with White Privilege want to talk about truth and reconciliation: let’s get past the uncomfortable truth and all gather ’round in reconciliation.

I challenged parts of the post:

“… re-telling of the Kendra James incident that raised memories of old familiar stories of white on black violence, and evoked resonances of rape and slavery … began the collapse of the opportunity for empathy.”

and

“M [is] for Moral commitments: Here, from both sides, there was a holding on to moral judgments about the Other as criminal, bad or unfair that blocked the possibility of new empathy.”

I began by countering the police contention that Officer Scott McCollister (not present) “was in fear for his life” as unfit grounds for building empathy among The People assembled:

“He was in fear for his life when he used his gun,” is a legal precept that, in Oregon, allows a DA to present a case for exoneration in deadly use of force by police. It is not much of an opportunity for empathy. For those who understand the City of Portland – despite payouts to heirs exceeding $8,000,000 – has never fired an officer for illegal use of force, there is little sympathy when this ‘Stay out of Jail’ card is played. In Sept 2012 the DoJ, Civil Rights Division issued Findings of an investigation being conducted when this article was published: “a self-defeating accountability system,” was terminology employed to describe long-standing policy that permits police to violate constitutional protections against misuse of force in the nation’s fifth whitest city. I submit that it is this fundamental lack of accountability, it is justice long denied, that inhibits empathy more than individual or collective character traits.

Grand juries find no wrongdoing; civil juries order financial restitution.

By framing them as ‘old and familiar’ the author seems to discount appreciation for the degrading effects of systemic and unrelenting oppression that lead inexorably from the past to present conditions, described by Michelle Alexander as The New Jim Crow. I’ll simply set this longstanding demand for understanding beside another, familiar quest for empathy … that the public cannot appreciate how difficult it is to perform the (sworn) duties of officers. This plea is issued when officers claim the self-referential standard, “I was in fear.” It is echoed any time legislation surfaces to change this peer-nullifying standard to “what a reasonable person in such circumstances would believe” in threat assessment. This ‘call for understanding’ is a false opportunity for empathy.

A DA gets Officer Scott McCallister to affirm he was in fear and that grand jury is prevented from further judgment. Prevented from acting upon the knowledge that McCallister had an existing relationship with the victim; that he knew where she lived and could have later served a warrant for failure to appear in court … without placing himself or others in harm’s way. Release of grand jury transcripts show that Multnomah DAs will go to great lengths to portray officers as having risen from Boy Scouts, and will portray now silent victims with suddenly unsealed records depicting health histories or juvenile criminal conduct … of which an officer was completely unaware at the time of the homicide. These staged, empathy-building circumventions of justice have become patterned through case after case. I invite you to explore the role of empathy in the manner of Grand Jury presentations by DAs in cases of police homicides.

I fail to see how “recalled experiences of bad treatment from the police … removed the possibility of empathy.” Aren’t these in fact the grounds for emotional congruence? It is a general unwillingness by the dominant culture to absorb the humiliation that people of color experience – as a milieu – that prevents the public from doing what it takes to eliminate racial bias in policing. We understand, intellectually, that PoC in Portland are twice as likely to be stopped, twice as likely to be searched, and then half as likely to have drugs or weapons than Whites. Even progressives in our community have little gut-level appreciation for the soul-destroying humiliation of racial profiling; particularly among youth, whose lifelong perceptions will be influenced by the knowledge that they are being treated differently from their peers. I’ll submit that a vast majority of Black and Hispanic families in Portland have an experience that meet your criteria for evoking an empathetic response. You’ll find few avenues where the power elite absorb what it feels like to be thus treated.

I consider “holding on to moral judgments about the Other as criminal” as a social good in this case. Justice demands it. Here's the DoJ findings of unconstitutional patterns and practices by PPB. Note: this investigation was initially sought by African American pastors … to establish civil rights protections based on race. These findings declare for the rights of those perceived to be in mental illness. Despite referencing the above stop data, people of color will receive indirect remedy, if any. Federal law requires the DoJ to establish INTENT for cases involving racial discrimination. Not so for the mentally ill.

Imagine how that feels.

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