Bahamas To U.S. Cops: You Look More Like Latin American And Caribbean Cops
When the Bahamas issued a travel advisory last weekend about visiting the U.S. – citing police brutality against black people – my first reaction was:
The Bahamas is warning Bahamians about cop cruelty against blacks in America? How about warning Bahamians about cop cruelty against blacks in the Bahamas?
For years, human rights groups like Amnesty International have slammed the Royal Bahamas Police Force for case after case of abuse, including a number of extrajudicial killings – few if any of which have resulted in real punishment. And because the Bahamian population is more than 90 percent black, guess which group feels the brunt of that Royal Ruthlessness.
So initially it was hard to take Nassau’s sudden concern for police treatment of black people all that seriously. It smacked of one of those hypocritical Third World potshots at Uncle Sam. It reminded me of the scene in “Animal House” when a fraternity leader sees the ROTC abusing one of his freshmen and says, “They can’t do that to our pledges. Only we can do that to our pledges.”
But then I began to appreciate the Bahamas’ travel advisory for what it actually is. It's a warning from Latin America and the Caribbean – where cops are infamous for beating up the underdog – that we're looking a bit too much like them today.
The Bahamas advisory is a warning from Latin America and the Caribbean - where cops are infamous for beating up the underdog - that we're looking a bit too much like them today.
I’ll be the first to acknowledge how dangerous - and courageous - police work is. How could I not after I started my journalism career covering the night beat in Chicago?
And I’ll of course be the first to condemn the terrible murders of police officers in Dallas last week. As President Obama stressed, nothing justifies an atrocity like that.
Still, Dallas doesn’t erase the reality that across the U.S., police are acquiring a Bahamian-style reputation for fatal, hair-trigger violence against poor and especially minority citizens – evidenced by the controversial killings of African-American men in Louisiana and Minnesota just days before Dallas.
Last year, U.S. cops killed more than 100 unarmed African-Americans – who were killed at five times the rate of unarmed white people.
So as someone who has for three decades covered police in Latin America, I have one message for police in America:
You do not want to continue down this path.
This month Human Rights Watch estimates police in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro state, where the Summer Olympics will be held next month, have killed more than 8,000 people in just the past decade.
Seventy percent of those victims were black, and HRW found scores of cases of police covering up unlawful killings – many of them brazen executions.
COPS OR COMMANDOS?
That’s an all too common plague in Latin America and the Caribbean, where most people distrust cops as much if not more than they fear criminals. Mexico is still reeling from the September 2014 disappearance of 43 mostly indigenous students in the state of Guerrero who were allegedly abducted by police and massacred.
U.S. police have yet to sink to those kinds of depths. But they do share one troubling trend with law enforcement in countries like Brazil and Mexico: Many imagine themselves to be commandos instead of cops – and increasingly their default solution is a bullet.
You can blame that G.I. Joe-in-blue mentality largely on a more than four-decade-old drug war both here and in Latin America. It has spawned a mano dura (hard hand) approach that keeps blurring the line between military and police. Central America is especially nuts in that regard, but even small U.S. departments are buying up army surplus like tanks and grenade launchers.
Add to that the drug war's obsession with busting racial and ethnic targets like young black men – and it becomes easier for police to label them a lethal threat during traffic stops.
A lot of U.S. cops say they feel more threatened than ever before. But in fact they’re not. Under Obama there have been far fewer police fatalities than there were under his predecessors.
As a result, African-Americans’ complaints about out-of-control cops seem more genuine.
And so do travel advisories from neighboring countries that know what it’s like when cops are really out of control.