“The sad truth is that the police have good reason to fear black men,” said Philadelphia mayoral candidate Doug Oliver during a mayoral forum on Monday.
As one of six journalists questioning the six candidates, I sat just two seats away from Oliver as he spoke, and I listened to him elaborate as shocked silence enveloped the room.
“That is the truth, because when you look at the statistics that’s where the shootings are coming from,” Oliver said. “And I think at the end of the day one of the worst things—what hit me in my core when police officer [Robert] Wilson was shot—was just how far back that set relationship and how in much more danger black men are simply because he was community policing. He was doing all of the things he was supposed to do when this happened. Everything went wrong. Nothing went right in that situation.”
As the full meaning of Oliver’s words washed over me, I felt an incredible sadness, because what Oliver positioned as the truth is anything but that. It is a falsehood—one that has been used to create a culture in which black men in America are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts.
I was saddened not only because of what Oliver said, but also because Oliver himself is a young black man. In fact, at just 40, he is the youngest candidate in the race. But as a man who grew up in a hardscrabble Germantown community, Oliver should know the danger of being stereotyped. And as a former mayoral spokesman who routinely explained city policy, he should know that in saying police have good reason to fear black men, he is sanctioning the use of deadly force against us.
That’s because the Philadelphia Police Department’s deadly force policy is predicated on officers believing that a suspect is a danger to police or others.
Police deadly force policy is based on fear
“Police Officers shall not use deadly force against another person,” the policy reads, “unless they have probable cause that they must protect themselves or another person from imminent death or serious bodily injury. Further, an officer is not justified in using deadly force at any point in time when there is no longer probable cause to believe the suspect is dangerous, even if deadly force would have been justified at an earlier point in time.”
In other words, police can use deadly force when they fear for their own lives or the lives of others. If, as Oliver said, police have good reason to fear black men, then they are always justified in using force against us.
If Oliver desires to be mayor, then he must understand that it is dangerous for police to harbor such a mindset, and it is deadly for a mayor to encourage it.
But Oliver didn’t make his statement about the fear of black men in a vacuum. He made it in answer to a question that was posed at the Al Dia News Media and WURD radio forum by Helen Ubinas, of the Philadelphia Daily News.
The question that prompted Oliver’s answer
“Many African American men in Philadelphia and beyond have expressed deep distrust in police,” Ubinas said early on in the mayoral forum. “As a fellow young black man, do you think they have reason to fear city police, and as mayor what would you ask of police and of the young black men in Philadelphia to improve these relationships?”
“I believe that it is a push and a pull,” Oliver answered. “I think it’s not—the responsibility rests with both groups. As a young black man who grew up in Germantown, Happy Hollow playground, 5015 Wayne Ave., yes, black men do have reason to be fearful of police at times. It’s not that every police officer that comes across their path is going to do them harm, but there are some that would. And when you don’t know the difference from one to the next you’re afraid all of the time. And I think that’s a reasonable concern. So as they say one bad apple spoils the bunch, it does. It really does concern—”
At that point, he was cut off by moderator Sabrina Vourvoulais of Al Dia because of time restrictions. Later in the debate he circled back to the question.
“I’ll take an opportunity to answer it,” Oliver said, “and it was actually the other half of the question that I was asked early on about whether or not black men in particular had a reason to be afraid of police and I said that they do. The sad truth is that the police have good reason to be afraid of black men. That is the truth because when you look at the statistics that’s where the shootings are coming from. And I think at the end of the day one of the worst things what hit me in my core when police officer Wilson was shot was just how far back that set relationship and how, in much more danger black men are simply because he was community policing. He was doing all of the things he was supposed to do when this happened. Everything went wrong. Nothing went right in that situation.”
Judging all black males by the actions of a few
That’s what saddened me most about what Oliver said. He used the heinous actions of two men to justify the fear of black men. He used the actions of murderers to say the police have good reason to fear us all.
I watched Doug Oliver argue with former City Councilman Angel Ortiz, who approached him about the inherent problem with his statement. The next day, on my radio show, I asked Oliver why he said police have good reason to fear black men.
“First, I think the context is important,” Oliver said. “The question was asked—and we had all of 50 seconds to respond to it—but the question was asked: As an African American male myself, did I think that African American males—young African American males—in our communities had reason to be fearful of the police, and if the police had a reason to be fearful of African American males.”
I pointed out to him that he was never asked if the police had a reason to be fearful of black men, but he persisted, saying that his answer at the forum was an attempt to explain that police have good reason to be fearful of black men because black men comprise the majority of those involved in Philadelphia’s shootings.
I debated him on his stance for 8 minutes, which you can hear in its entirety.
But when it was over, I felt empty, because Oliver, a black man, had attempted to justify the fear of black men with statistics.
However, if statistics are to be our guide in this uncomfortable debate, then we should consider these. There were 1,128 shooting victims in Philadelphia in 2013. Even if every shooter were black—which they were not—there are 689,000 black people living in Philadelphia. That means Oliver is saying police have good reason to fear black men based on the actions of 1/1000th of the black population.
That’s prejudice. That’s wrong. And if Doug Oliver won’t say that on behalf of his fellow black men, then I’m more than happy to say it myself.
Listen to Solomon Jones M-F from 7 to 10 am on 900 AM WURD radio