This is a story we hear all too often with alarming frequency. Police officers stop an unarmed person for a minor infraction. It escalates. Then said person is either killed or beaten senseless. Most of the time, we see them harming and killing black victims—although, this is an issue that impacts other people of color and whites as well. It is well documented that blacks are more likely to be killed by police proportionate to our representation in the population. It is also true that the media loves capitalizing on black trauma and death, which is why we hear about this so much. And these facts deserves our proper attention.
But, we cannot stop there. Non-black people need to be invested in this issue as well. Of course, one reason is because it’s a social justice issue and reminds us how far we have to go when it comes to race relations and equity in this country. But, while anti-blackness is a root cause of much of this behavior, this type of violence doesn’t end with black folks. We must face the truth that police officers engage in brutality and deadly force way too much without justification or accountability. And that should concern everyone because, as a society, we are way too complacent about how pervasive this issue really is.
In Asheville, North Carolina, right now, there is an ongoing case that highlights concern about this issue. It has both disgusted and angered the local community.
Federal authorities are investigating body camera footage from August that shows two white police officers Tasering and beating a black man whom they accused of jaywalking in Asheville, N.C.
The footage, obtained by The Citizen Times, has created an uproar in town. One of the officers has resigned, and the police chief has offered to follow suit.
“The city is in outrage,” Councilwoman Sheneika Smith said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “Facebook was flaming. It was on fire.”
Johnnie Jermaine Rush was coming home after his dishwashing shift at Cracker Barrel. It was after midnight when he was approached by a police officer, Verino Ruggiero. Ruggiero told Rush that he had failed to cross the street using the crosswalk multiple times. He then said that he was left with the choice of either arresting Rush or writing him a ticket. When Rush responds with something that equates to the equivalent of “do what you’ve got to do, but leave me alone,” that’s when the situation became serious.
Officer Chris Hickman, who was training Officer Ruggiero and wearing the body camera, orders Mr. Rush to put his hands behind his back. Mr. Rush runs, and the officers chase him, eventually tackling him to the ground.
During the arrest, Mr. Rush was shocked with a Taser, choked and beaten by Officer Hickman, according to police records.
At several points, while pinned to the ground, Mr. Rush cried, “I can’t breathe!”
The camera footage also shows Officer Hickman hitting Mr. Rush on the head over and over with a closed fist, and Mr. Rush crying out in pain as he is shocked with a Taser.
Rush was eventually charged with resisting a public officer, trespassing, impeding traffic and assaulting a government official. The charges were dropped the following month when Asheville’s district attorney saw the body camera footage.
Now, it’s hard to know exactly what went through the minds of the officers or Rush. But can we start with the fact that he was originally stopped for jaywalking? At midnight? Presumably, he wasn’t interfering with large amounts of traffic. But who knows. Maybe Asheville has some kind of epidemic of out-of-control midnight jaywalkers causing chaos who need to be thrown in jail. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Well so does the officer response here—which seems completely disproportionate to what Rush was accused of doing. And what of the officer response when Rush tries to run? He is tackled to the ground, tasered, choked and beaten. Again, all because he was trying to get home quickly after working the late shift. We’ve seen white male shooters emerge from killing schools and movie theaters full of victims with less harm done to them.
And yet, there’s more. As is common with these types of cases, violent behavior on the part of one of the officers isn’t new.
The two administrative investigations of Officer Hickman, which concluded in December, took several months. It was not until January that the criminal investigation began, the results of which are expected to be given to the district attorney next week. Officer Ruggiero is not under investigation.
The administrative investigations revealed that Officer Hickman had used excessive force during the arrest and that he had engaged in “rude and discourteous behavior” on four other occasions with other members of the public, according to police records. [Asheville Police Chief Tammy Hooper] decided to terminate him in January, personnel records show, but before she could deliver the news, he notified the department of his resignation, the documents say.
The FBI has a case open right now and is reviewing possible criminal charges for Officer Hickman. With Jeff Sessions leading the Justice Department and Donald Trump advocating for even more police violence against citizens, it would be a miracle if this were to be prosecuted. We know they don’t care about the lives and safety of most Americans, especially black ones. It’s unlikely that Rush will receive any kind of justice. And yet still, this is an issue we really need to be addressing at every turn. Police violence is a huge problem in America that has been festering for decades.
MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell wrote about this in 1983. His book, Deadly Force: The True Story of How a Badge Became a License to Kill, is about police brutality in Boston in the 1970s. Per a recent podcast interview with David Axelrod, O’Donnell talks about his own experiences as victim of police violence himself. He penned an op-ed in the New York Times in 1979, which stated:
”Without a reliable mechanism to cope with the problem of unjustified killings by the police, widespread abuse of what police rule books call deadly force, goes on unchecked. Police departments, prosecutors, the courts and, perhaps more importantly the American people, have failed to respond to the problem properly. And, therefore, have all but given the police unlimited license to use their deadly force.”
Those words ring true today more than ever. Deadly force and rampant violence by police must be held accountable and we must repair the harm and mistrust this has done in our communities. O’Donnell’s book is actually being re-printed this coming summer with a new foreword. It will be an important addition to a conversation that we must continue to have.