First a truce, then peace

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

October 08, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

I keep brooding about that terrible incident in Woodlawn last month -- the one that ended with the fatal shooting of a 19-year-old postal employee by a Baltimore County police officer.

County police say that Sadiq A. Martin was one of three young men in a four-wheel-drive vehicle who were breaking into cars on a parking lot behind Woodlawn High School about 10 a.m. Sept. 23.

When the three were surrounded by police and ordered to surrender, the driver allegedly tried to run the barricade instead. Police said Officer Timothy T. Mitchem, 29, fired six shots in self-defense as the speeding vehicle bore down on him. Martin, the driver, was hit in the chest and died a short while later.

As you undoubtedly know by now, Martin and his friends were black. Most of the officers on the scene, including Mitchem, were white.

And so, it's the same old story: The shooting has become a racial issue.

This is what I've been brooding about.

Police insist Mitchem acted within the department's guidelines regarding the use of deadly force.

But Martin's family, NAACP officials and some witnesses to the shooting charge that police may have fired too hastily and without cause because the suspects were black.

The FBI and a county grand jury are conducting independent investigations of the case -- the grand jury as a matter of standard practice in a police shooting, the FBI at the request of the young man's family and the chief of police.

But what do we realistically expect either the grand jury or federal agents to find?

There is no evidence, to date, that officers on the scene acted improperly. There is no videotaped recording as in the Los Angeles case. Nor, apparently, did officers on the scene gleefully share racial slurs over the county police radio network.

On the other hand, young Martin hardly fit the profile of a hardened criminal. He apparently had no criminal record. He had graduated from Northwestern High School. He was gainfully employed as a mail handler at the main post office. He was a member of an apparently stable, law-abiding family. Martin's father is a state corrections officer. His mother is a clerk at the post office.

You don't expect young people with this kind of background to die in a hail of police gunfire. (You also don't expect them to be boosting car radios from a Woodlawn parking lot, as police allege).

So, something went wrong in Woodlawn last month, something with tragically fatal consequences. And whatever happened was racial by definition -- because so many people immediately saw it in racial terms.

But the roots of the problem are too deep and too subtle to be uncovered by either a county or federal investigation.

I believe that both sides -- the police department and blacks -- need to examine their relationship, a relationship that is all too often governed by mutual hostility, fear and distrust. The relationship is affected as much by what happens between blacks and police in Los Angeles and Miami as in Baltimore County, and by what happened between blacks and police in the past as by what happens today.

What subliminal messages are we black adults sending our children about law and order if we view the police department as a hostile, potentially abusive force? How can we teach our young to respect authority if we ourselves view that authority with suspicion and anger?

And what has the police department done to earn that trust, considering all of those decades when the actions and attitudes of county police earned the community's distrust?

Blacks make up less than 8 percent of the county police force -- slightly less than the percentage of black residents. There are only two ranking black officers -- a captain who commands the Cockeysville precinct and a lieutenant assigned to Dundalk. Two sergeants and one corporal are black, that's it.

On the issue of hiring and promotion alone, is there any reason, for the black community in Baltimore County to look at the police force as having changed?

Finally, when you take this mix of hostility, distrust, fear, antagonism, suspicion and anger on both sides, any confrontation will be a potentially tragic one.

Blacks and their police departments have been at war with each other for too long.

First, we need to declare a truce. Then, we need to negotiate a lasting peace.

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