The District’s aggressive attitude toward Blacks, as in the Jason Goolsby case earlier this year, is more common than residents think, says anti-police violence and civil rights activists.
On Oct. 12, two White police officers patrolling the Capitol Hill area of the District, chased and harshly handled Goolsby, a Black University of the District of Columbia student, because he fled a scene where a robbery allegedly took place. The Goolsby incident was videotaped by a friend of his and went viral on social media.
On Nov. 25, D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said that the two officers who apprehended Goolsby, haven’t been charged with a crime and were cleared of any wrongdoing. “We feel that the officers’ actions, given the entirety of the circumstances, were appropriate and within department policy,” Lanier said. Goolsby was not charged either.
Johnny Barnes, the retired director of the Nation’s Capital chapter of the ACLU and a practicing civil rights attorney, said Lanier’s decision wasn’t a surprise to him. “When I was the director of the city’s ACLU, we were constantly locking horns with the police,” Barnes said. “What makes the Jason Goolsby case so unusual is the level of attention that it is getting.”
The District’s police department, along with other law enforcement agencies that deal with residents such as the D.C. housing authority’s force, haven’t generated the level of controversy regarding the shooting and killing of Blacks that others around the country have. Observers of law enforcement in the District have credited this relatively low level of police-community confrontations to three reasons.
First, the District’s community policing programs are strongly supported by Lanier. Second, the police force is 57 percent Black and third, Lanier has placed a great deal of emphasis on police officer training and continuing education.
However, despite the positives, Barnes said many times police officers don’t perform their duties in a legal and ethical manner. He cited a case where the police wanted to come into a Black woman’s residence without a warrant and when they were in, they harassed her.
Barnes said incidents such as the blockade of the Trinidad neighborhood in Northeast D.C. in 2008, that enabled warrantless searches of suspects to reduce crime, and the District housing police’s program of barring visiting friends and relatives in city-owned public housing complexes have created a perception among many Black residents that the police aren’t their ally.
“The most famous barring notice case was the one of Trayon White, who was then a member of the D.C. Board of Education representing Ward 8,” Barnes said. “White was visiting some of his constituents in a public housing complex when the housing police arrested him in 2011 for trespassing because they said that he should not have been on their grounds. He didn’t even know about the notice but we fought that charge and beat it.”
In general, Barnes said the police can get out of control sometimes when it comes to the civil rights of Black people in the District. “Outrageous stuff takes place all the time,” he said. “The police cannot police themselves. They cut corners and watch each other’s backs.”
Goolsby was not taken into custody. He is seeking legal redress against the District police department.
“[Lanier] was right,” Delroy Burton, chairman of the D.C. Police Union and a critic of the police chief said. “The officers acted reasonably and performed their duties the way they were trained.”
Burton put the onus on Goolsby. “He should not have run from the scene when the officers arrived,” he said. “If Goolsby didn’t do anything wrong, why did he run?”
Sean Blackmon, an organizer for Stop Police Terror Project DC, said the real issue in the case was the police’s immediate suspicion of him doing something wrong. “What happened to Jason Goolsby is more common than people think,” Blackmon said. “As a matter of fact, in this country, every 28 hours a Black person is subject to police terror.”
Blackmon has heard arguments that District police officers are more reasonable in their use of force because it is majority Black and well-trained but he doesn’t buy it. “What people have to understand is that we are dealing with the nature of an institution instead of the individual character or integrity of an officer,” he said. “Police officers in D.C., regardless of their color, are here to control Black people not protect them. You don’t have to be White to be in service to White supremacy.”
Burton disagrees with Blackmon and Barnes, saying that District’s department is a professional outfit. “There are some bad apples in all police departments but the vast majority of officers in D.C., as well as nationwide, are professional,” he said. “The District’s department is light years away from such departments as Ferguson, Mo’s and even New York City’s.”