On Tuesday, a Dover cop charged with assault after kicking a surrendering suspect in the face (and breaking his jaw in the process) was acquitted. Despite being caught on dash cam video, the police officer gets to walk away unpunished, and is likely to get his job back – with back pay.
The cop was white. The suspect was black. That matters.
I don’t know if Cpl. Thomas Webster IV is a good cop. I do know he’s been a member of the Dover Police Department for 10 years, and in that time has wracked up a whopping 29 use-of-force reports, none of which were allowed in during the trial.
He’s was also suspended from the force for 10 days and put on disciplinary probation after he and another officer picked up two drunken suspects in Dover and dropped them off in the middle of nowhere near Little Creek, despite one of the suspects requesting to be taken to the hospital.
In this case, Webster claimed his use of force was justified. His laughable defense for kicking Lateef Dickerson in the face was that he intended to kick him in the chest, admitting an intentional kick to the head in that situation wasn’t warranted. And any fair-minded person I’ve shown the video to has come away with the opinion that the idea Dickerson was resisting arrest is nonsensical.
Still, those are the arguments that won over the jury, which found him innocent on the second-degree assault charge. It shouldn’t matter that Dickerson is a career criminal, or that he’s facing jail time on unrelated charges. In this country (at least until Donald Trump becomes president), it’s illegal to assault the guilty and innocent alike.
When news broke of Webster’s acquittal, a good amount of the reaction seem centered on the fact it was unnecessary to report he was a white cop. “Why can’t it just be cop who kicked suspect not guilty?” one reader said. “Why is it so important to know he was white?” another questioned.
“We send the wrong message,” Larry Bryant, the founder and president of local organization Men of Vision & Value, told the News Journal. “We send the message to police officers that it’s OK to break their jaws. It’s OK to fracture their cheek. It’s OK to do that to them.”
I wonder if those same critics think it’s important that of the 12-member jury, only two were African-American. Or that as of last May, 78 of the 94 officers on the Dover Police Department were white. Just 12 cops were black, a problem in a town where over 42 percent of residents are African-American.
In a moment of absolute tone-deafness, Fred Calhoun, president of the Delaware Fraternal Order of Police, said the verdict would “go a long way with my brothers and sisters” to make them feel supported. It’s nice that cops with cushy salaries and benefits feel loved (maybe they’ll now have time to release a new viral lip-sync video), but I wonder if the community that pays their wages feels equally supported after this latest incident.
So let’s review: A white cop on an overwhelming white police force severely injures a surrendering black suspect, and a white jury lets him off to the cheers of white president of his police union. And you’re telling me race isn’t important?
I’m not here to bash police officers. I understand the job is demanding, and it’s easy to be a Monday-morning quarterback in the luxury of my office. But I do know that it’s the actions of officers like Webster that are creating a rift between cops and the communities their serve.
At this point, can anyone question why members of the African-American community in Dover and elsewhere don’t feel like their being protected or served? To them, the message is clear – black lives don’t matter.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and WHYY contributor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.