By Eddie Griffin
Be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath (James 1:19)
The above quote is prudent advice for all circumstances and situations, especially a situation like the shooting death of Charal T. Thomas at the hands of FWPD officer J. Romer. Not only is the incident tragic, it is also complicated: Tragic because a father was shot to death in front of his three children; complicated because the circumstances suggest that the officer fired in self-defense.
Like most people, I have waited for the air to clear and to hear all accounts. But recent Star-Telegram editorials and letters-to-the-editor urge me to speak. According to newspaper accounts, Thomas was under surveillance, sitting in his SUV, with his children in the car. He was under suspicion of possible drug activities, which some readers imply as guilt by past conviction, though no drugs were discovered in the vehicle upon later investigation.
Instead, Thomas had outstanding traffic warrants. And, it was to this end, that Officer Romer approached the vehicle to place the subject under arrest. They say he resisted, that he locked his door, let up his window, and took off, with the officer’s arm trapped in the window. The officer retrieved his weapon and fired 12 shots into the man’s body, thereby killing him.
The subject was a young one-legged black man, the officer white.
Why? That is the question everybody is asking. Some conclude that it was another typical shooting of a black suspect by a white officer. Some say it was excessive force, that it was not necessary to pump 12 bullets into the man’s body. Some say the officer was just defending his own life; otherwise, he would have been the victim.
How do you deal with such a tragedy under such complicated circumstances?
Thomas’ children, ages 7 to 11, were in the back seat of the car. They witnessed the shooting. No matter what later investigations will reveal, they will forever be traumatized by the incident. The family is upset, angry, and aggrieved. No one can measure their pain. The Stop Six community is incensed at yet another incident of a police officer killing one of their own.
Today’s letters-to-the-editor is as oblivious to the community’s indignation as west is to east. The writers probably have never been under surveillance. Being black and driving a late model SUV in an impoverished neighborhood is probable cause for suspicion of drug activity, or so it seems in the minds of people. But the problem is not as simple as “suspicion and black”. Everyone, even the black community, can appreciate public safety. The problem is: Equal Protection and Equal Respect.
After all, it was the black community itself that begged for more police protection in their community, against gangs, drug trafficking, and violence. But when officers get bored, they start making traffic stops for little stuff like: “Failure to make a turn signal”, “A cracked taillight”, “an illegal shift in a turning lane”, etc., etc. And, these ignoble offenses are imposed upon the poorest people, who are already the least that can afford to pay the fines. Instead of feeling protected, some people feel under siege.
This feeling of anxiety, anger, and hostility passes from one generation to another, almost without notice.
Police Chief Jeff Halstead is aware and sensitive to these feelings. This is why he has met with leaders and ministers of the community on a number of occasions. But talk is cheap when nothing is done to ameliorate the underlying problem of alienation between the police department and the black community.
There is a consequence for shootings like these. Children grow up with animosity toward police, similar to the feelings that Palestinian children grow up with at Israeli occupational forces. The anger and outrage that we are witnessing today in the Stop Six community did not start in 2011 with one isolated incident. It goes way back to the time that I describe as “Authority Without Consent”, that is to say, having the power to police does not mean that people consent to being policed, especially in light of a history of offical oppression, abuse, and corruption. There were times of “shakedown cops”, who were complicit with bootleggers and pimps and others who engaged in criminal activity, so long as they were paid off ("under the table"). To “snitch” on them would be equivalent to suicide, which is why black people historically do not cooperate with police.
Fort Worth is not Mississippi, but people remember the southern sheriff with his absolute power over black people. This is not New York, but people remember those who had been arrested only to disappear and have their bodies wash up on the Trinity River bottom. The hostilities, apprehension, and anxiety of African-Americans against the police department is a product of social conditioning in the line and legacy of the infamous Joe D. Fee and Bush.
Surely, there is nothing we can do to bring the dead back to life. We can only comfort the family of Charal Thomas, nurture and minister to his children as they try to grow up, and remove the shooting officer (J. Romer) from the patrol beat, where his continued presence would only be a hostile reminder of this tragic incident.
Thawing community relations is not simply a matter of meeting with ministers whenever something goes wrong, but a commitment and involvement by the FWPD in helping to nurture our children and heal our people. This would mean involvement at the grassroots level, in the schools, churches, community centers, not just coming in and out with packaged PD PR programs; but to educate, mentor, train, and reward the next generation of young leaders who must take the responsibility in building a strong, viable, and law-abiding community.