The shooting death of 25-year old New York City Police Department officer Omar J. Edwards is just the latest incident involving a case of supposed mistaken identity. The two year veteran of the NYPD was gunned down by a white officer who apparently mistook Edwards for a criminal, when in fact, the Black officer was in pursuit of a suspect who he had caught breaking into his car in East Harlem. While such “friendly fire” incidents have been rare in the nation’s largest municipal police force, when it does occur the victim is often Black and male. That comes as no surprise, particularly to many Black officers, who are consistently outnumbered in places like New York City where they comprise less than 20% of the force.
While an internal investigation is underway, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg quickly suggested that race was not a factor in response to a quip by Rep. Charles Rangel that President Obama “make certain that he doesn’t run around in East Harlem without identification.” We understand Mr. Rangel’s dose of sarcasm. This plot has played out far too often in matters of police misconduct. Police shoot. PBA defends. Blacks or Hispanics express outrage. City goes on the defensive. Police are exonerated or given a mild reprimand. Public outrage turns to disgust and disgust turns to indifference. We hope the death of officer Edwards changes that pattern.
We do not know what triggered the white officer’s reaction, and we may never truly know for that matter. What we do know is that we have not heard of similar incidents when the racial identities of the two officers have been reversed, a Black shooter and an off-duty or undercover white officer the victim. It safe to say that such a scenario rarely, if ever, occurs. One thing that is clear is that much work needs to be done within the NYPD, and more likely police departments across the nation, to do more than become “sensitive” to diverse populations. Law enforcement officers need to respect the humanity of their fellow colleagues who are Black and Latino, and the larger community, and that can only happen if there is an acknowledgement by police that societal biases permeate their thinking. So-called “diversity training does not do the trick because it glosses over some of the fundamental issues that are at the heart of racial bias. There has to be a better way to detect and confront racial perceptions among those who are sworn to uphold the law and protect the public.
By all accounts from friends and his family, Officer Edwards was truly one of “New York’s Finest.” We have heard reports that his wish in life was to serve on the city police department. He achieved that goal yet sadly, he lost his life in a manner that betrays the honor by which he served. He deserved better than this. It is up to us to call for greater accountability in our police departments, and demand that strict rules are enforced concerning the discharge of a weapon and the decision points leading up to that action. There is no such thing as “friendly fire” if the fear of an accidental shooting by a colleague weighs as heavy upon a Black officer as the fear of engaging an armed criminal.
In a job that comes with certain occupational hazards, Black police officers should not have to fear their colleagues as well as criminals.