Updated: Mar 16
Ma’Khia Bryant shouldn’t be dead over chores.
Angela Moore, Ma’Khia’s foster mother, told CNN that the dispute that led to the 16 year-old being fatally shot last week by a Columbus, Ohio, police officer as she was attempting to stab another young woman began over a messy house and an unmade bed.
If that’s true, then the family and community dysfunction that surrounded Ma'Khia killed her as surely as that police officer’s bullets did.
Also, if that’s true, then Ma’Khia’s death also reflects a common dilemma; of police officers being summoned to quell situations spawned by common arguments that were, once upon a time, handled by family or neighbors.
That’s one reason why Black communities are overpoliced. And such situations don’t always end well.
“Poor people in distressed communities, and racial minorities tend to be the largest consumers of government services, and police are no exception,” said KB Turner, chair of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Memphis.
“For some, it’s part of the culture, and they know that if they call 911, the police will come. But when the police come, they will arrive bringing legal force. Not lethal force necessarily, but legal force, because they’ll [the callers] expect the police to either remove the person causing the problem from the scene, or to solve the conflict…
“But this is not the method people should rely on…police should not be the first line of defense. Families and communities should.”
Yet that’s been happening for some time now.
I’ve seen it. In the early 1990s, a neighbor of mine in Jacksonville, Florida, got into a heated argument with her teenage son, and threw a vase at him, which nipped him on his ear as he ducked.
He told his father – and her ex-husband – about it. The ex-husband called the police.
They arrested her for assault and jailed her.
That predicament could have been resolved through parental counseling and a Band-Aid. it could have been handled by her ex-husband talking to her or offering or offering to allow his son to stay with him as she got the help she needed. Instead, the arrest put her in a situation where, had my neighbors and her relatives failed to raise the $1,000 to bond her out of jail in time to report for work, she would have lost her job and her apartment.
She and her two sons would have been homeless.
My former neighbor’s experience nearly three decades ago, and Ma’ Khia’s slaying a week ago, all speak to how it’s past time to defund, reimagine, or do whatever it takes to ensure that when police are summoned, they don’t create a worse problem than the one they were summoned to solve.
It speaks to how it’s time, in cities such as Memphis, to redirect some of the millions for the police force into, say, investing in the kind of crisis intervention needed to recognize and to diffuse situations before they escalate to the point where people are throwing fists and wielding weapons.
It means creating systems where the first reaction isn’t to arrest someone who is acting out, but to assess whether that person should be taken to a counseling center instead of to a jail. Oh, and maybe some of those millions could be spent for funding counseling centers and mental health services. “Our police department got $282 million last year,” Official Black Lives Matter Memphis chapter activist Amber Sherman said Sunday, during a rally to call attention to police slayings of Black women and to call for police abolishment, “but we don’t even have a free homeless shelter.”
Yet a bigger, more complex step is restoring social capital and economic stability in communities so that people aren’t so stressed by survival issues and other problems that they see 911 as a quick way to resolve a momentary crisis.
A recent audit of the Memphis Police Department, in fact, found that it spends too much time responding to non-emergency calls.
“The lack of domestic tranquility in our neighborhoods is what’s causing all the problems for which they think is a solution is to call the police,” activist Josh Adams said. “…Police are not the solution to our community issues. What we need are different systems.”
“We need to reform our communities. We need to make sure that we have community-based systems for accountability, community-based systems for safety, that we have mental health in our communities…we have therapy in our communities…”
If nothing else, such community-based systems can ultimately eliminate the urge for people in struggling communities to call 911 first – or to understand that when they do, the outcome may not be what they expect.
Especially if they don’t expect that calling 911 will result in someone losing their freedom. Or their life.