By Esther J. Cepeda The Washington Post
First Published Apr 06 2016 06:00PM • Last Updated Apr 07 2016 01:14 pm
Chicago • When it comes to the epidemic of African-Americans dying at the hands of police, people who are asked to consider the issue often get stuck on whether or not the person in question had it coming.
What was he or she doing at the time? Running away? Resisting arrest? And if so, doesn't that prove that he or she was guilty of something?
And from there it's a short hop to the conclusion that if only this person had been doing the right things — staying off the streets, keeping out of trouble, not hanging around with the wrong people or doing exactly as the police demanded at the moment of a heated encounter — any subsequent tragedy could have been averted.
In a perfect world, mothers and fathers living in low-income communities with crumbling schools and few employment opportunities would heroically manage to raise children who were able to stay away from trouble with alcohol, drugs or gang-type behavior even though these things are all around them.
But since we live in a world where even white, well-to-do people get caught up in substance abuse, crime or mental illness, shouldn't we be able to get past the gut reaction about whether a person who is gunned down by a police officer may have "had it coming" and instead consider the human element of the matter?
In the days leading up to the one-year anniversary of her son's death at the hands of the Zion, Illinois, police, I spoke to LaToya Howell, who is working with the Chicago chapter of the Stop Mass Incarceration Network to raise awareness about the epidemic of police shootings.
"The big thing I want everyone to know is that my son did not deserve to die," Howell told me. "He was not a threat — he was running in fear of his life."
I spoke with her not as a journalist looking for an "angle" on a story but just as another mom — a mother of a 17-year-old whose best friend, coincidentally, looks like he could be Justus Howell's twin brother, and lives only a few miles from the Chicago suburb where Justus was killed.
When you talk with a fellow mom, you commiserate because no matter how well you taught your kids right from wrong, how to stay away from trouble and how they should behave in a situation with a police officer, a 17-year-old is likely to not make the best possible choices when it counts.
And so you're left with the human element and this is it: On April 4, 2015, Justus was shot twice in the back by a policeman. The Lake County coroner's office ruled his death a homicide.
Yes, toxicology reports found that Justus had small amounts of marijuana and alcohol in his system. And, yes, there was an acquaintance who had a loaded pistol on him and, yes, the gun went off, prompting police into pursuit. But these factors cannot bring us to say to ourselves, "Oh, then the police were right to kill this kid."
The true circumstances moments before Justus' death are unknown. But as we hear about minority men and women dying at the hands of police officers across the country, surely we have to ask ourselves whether this was a situation that could have somehow ended without LaToya Howell's 17-year-old son dead at the hands of the very people tasked with keeping his community safe.
Even those of us who believe in the promise of law enforcement, who respect and revere their local police officers, should ask themselves, their elected officials and their local governments: What needs to change?
What must we do to ensure a basic fairness in how our police officers are trained — both in their general relations with low-income, minority or mentally ill community members as well as in violent or life-threatening situations? How can we ensure the system works so that snap judgments about whether people who die at their hands "had it coming" are never part of the equation?
"We shouldn't have to live in fear of our authorities," said Howell. "We need people to stand up and ask our police to have compassion and proper training in dealing with our youth. We need the police to hear our stories and we need them not to act as if our children aren't human."