Nearly a month has passed since 16-year-old José Cruz and his friend Edgar Rodríguez were gunned down by an off-duty police officer in Addison, Texas, a suburb north of Dallas. Cruz and Rodríguez were breaking into an SUV at an apartment complex where Farmer Branch officer Ken Johnson lived. They dashed from the scene once Johnson spotted them. Johnson chased them in his vehicle and rammed into their car. As the boy’s vehicle came to a halt, Johnson exited his vehicle and fired upon them, killing Cruz and severely injuring Rodríguez. Both of the boys were unarmed. Johnson was arrested but later released. On March 24, just a week after the shooting, he resigned from the force.
Despite receiving scant attention from national media outlets, Cruz’s death triggered a strong response among Latino youth in the area. Family, friends and anonymous individuals created rap songs and a memorial page. Dallas-based rapper Young OG also recorded a tribute song for Cruz. Expressing anger over neglected Latino victims of police brutality, he said “This happens too many times yet the media don’t show no light, it’s like they don’t give a fuck, like they don’t care if we die.”
Unlike most publicized events of police shootings, this incident did not involve a white officer. Cruz was Latino and Johnson was Black. This dynamic challenges the media narrative of racist white cops killing unarmed Black males. The dominance of this narrative is odd, since non-white officers have killed a person of color on numerous occasions. It was only 25 years ago when rioting occurred in Washington, D.C., after a Black female officer shot a Salvadoran man. This historical amnesia reveals that Americans have an ahistorical view of police violence and are willing ignorant about the brutality committed by non-White officers upon minorities.
There are numerous examples of individuals who have argued that minority officers are no different, and sometimes worse, than white officers. Rap artists such as KRS-One, NWA, and Lord Jamar talked about this subject in their music. “They’re blue before they’re Black…the police are an arm of white supremacy,” said Lord Jamar in an interview on Vlad TV.
In February, California State Polytechnic University professor Alvaro Huerta wrote an op-ed where he recalled growing up in East Los Angeles, him and his friends dreaded the Latino cops the most. “By verbally and physically harassing us, the Latino officers reinforced their 100 percent loyalty to their white peers and police department,” he said.
Even more troubling are politicians who believe that by having police officers reflect the communities they patrol, tensions would disappear. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’s campaign website states “We need police forces that reflect the diversity of our communities, including in the training academies and leadership.” Although admirable, from anecdotal evidence, placing non-white police officers into minority communities appears ineffective in mending police-community relations. In an interview with Cenk Uygur, host of the online news program The Young Turks, former Baltimore police officer Michael Wood said that Black officers were rough with Black suspects because they viewed them as an “embarrassment to the race.”
Another example of this comes from an Al Jazeera Fault Lines documentary about the 2012 Anaheim, California riots. Sargent Juan Reveles of the Anaheim Police Department’s Gang Unit argued in favor of racial profiling to track down mostly Latino gang members. Addressing the need to spend their resources wisely, he said, “If I’m looking for gang members, what good is it for me to stop this white kid that looks like a skater?” These two examples shows that non-white police officers easily emulate their white counterparts. It is not surprising that Black and Latino officers can view criminal suspects who look like them as an aberration to racial progress. Essentially, it is not enough to change the face of police officials if the culture promotes the status quo.
Having police forces reflect the racial demographics of a community also ignores the reality of officers lacking familiarity with the people they monitor. A 2015 survey by the Police Executive Research Forum revealed that police received 58 percent of their training in firearms, but only 10 percent in communication skills and 8 percent in de-escalation tactics. Non-white police officers are receiving the same training. They are just as isolated from low-income minority communities as their white counterparts.
The fact that many Americans are unaware of non-white officers committing acts of brutality upon people of color reveals that the voices of our most disadvantaged groups have been marginalized. Police brutality has been an issues that poor and working-class communities have rallied against for over 70 years. The vast majority of riots that have occurred in Black and Latino communities since the 1960s were sparked by incidents of police violence. Yet, for many Americans this topic is seen as a new issue. Blacks and Latinos have been debunked the myth of the racist White cop, but the narrative remains pervasive.
The reality is that ending police brutality has never been about firing supposedly racist white cops. Ken Johnson could have been Latino and the event would have unfolded the same way. Framing the conversation in that way turns the debate of a systemic issue into a discussion about individual characters. Instead of examining government policies and police training, Americans are likely to debate whether the officer held racist views and exonerate themselves from collective responsibility.
This myth can also result in Americans viewing incidents like the killing of Jose Cruz as an anomaly. As I have argued in another op-ed, there is a long history of state violence against Latinos. Americans’ poor understanding of Latino history prohibits them from seeing the historical context of these killings. Regardless of Johnson’s race, as a police officer he was an agent of the State. The outrage among the community was more about perceived injustice and state violence than the fact that Johnson was Black.
As long as the United States remains a country with a racial hierarchy that embraces white supremacy, the presences of non-white officers in low-income minority communities will not solve mistrust and contempt. Implementing true police reform must address this issue. If police departments fail to do this, minority officers will be receiving the same training that many police reform activists view as problematic.
Aaron G. Fountain, Jr. is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Indiana University-Bloomington. He tweets from @aaronfountainjr.