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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Listening to other points of view doesn’t hurt your integrity, Mr. McDevitt

Shawn Vestal
Shawn Vestal

In America, a black driver is more likely to be pulled over by police officers than a white driver, and more likely to be searched.

If charged with a crime, a black suspect is more likely than a white one to be detained without bail. If convicted, a black person can expect a longer sentence. The proportion of the African-American prison population is three times that of the population at large. Black people are twice as likely to be arrested on drug charges as whites, though the groups use drugs at comparable rates.

All told, the rate of black Americans who are under “total control” of the justice system – imprisoned, paroled or otherwise under corrections supervision – is four times that of white Americans, according to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

What do you call someone who looks at this and decides that the simple, obvious explanation is that black people commit more crimes? And who seems angry that anyone might disagree?

Right now, we’re calling him leader of the Spokane Police Department.

Jim McDevitt, who has served the community as U.S. attorney and been an important player in Mayor David Condon’s efforts at police reform, has been named director of law enforcement while the city looks for a full-time chief. Since his appointment, many people in the community have raised alarms about attitudes he expressed in an op-ed column for this newspaper in March, arguing that, essentially, the disparities in justice among racial groups in America are a result of the fact that black people commit more crimes.

McDevitt argued that the Black Lives Matter movement, and our national leaders – read: Obama – are being divisive and unfair to law enforcement officers by noting these disparities and expressing outrage over a series of shocking police shootings of unarmed black men. Doing so is “playing politics.” The “real problem,” he wrote, is the fact that so many black Americans are victims of crime at the hands of other black Americans.

He cites statistics that black people are more likely to commit violent crimes than white people, and argues that as a result of this “inconvenient” and “hard truth,” police find it “irresistible” to engage in a “somewhat rational form of profiling.”

“We continue to hear ‘another killing of an unarmed man of color’ when it is also accurate to say ‘the unfortunate shooting of an uncooperative male suspect,’ ” he wrote.

Well. This was not long after the unfortunate shooting of Tamir Rice, a boy killed instantly by Cleveland police for holding a BB gun, and not long before a South Carolina officer unfortunately gunned down a fleeing Walter Scott.

McDevitt has responded defiantly to criticisms – suggesting that people should simply accept the wisdom of his experience. He huffed out of a meeting with his fellow members of the Police Leadership Advisory Committee last week, after the local leaders of the NAACP and the Native Project, along with the committee chairwoman, raised concerns about the incompatibility of McDevitt’s views with the group’s goal that the SPD be led by someone dedicated to racial equity.

“I’ll stand on my record, and I won’t have my integrity questioned,” he said.

Talk about a bad sign. The very last thing Spokane needs at this point in the long, arduous struggle for police reform is someone at the head of the police department who believes he is above reproach, who can’t tolerate disagreement, and who shuts down discussions.

McDevitt insists that his record is what’s at issue. In doing so, he demonstrates one of the main sources of fuel for systemic, institutional racism: well-intentioned white people at the helm of organizations who don’t accept evidence of racial disparities or listen to the experiences of people of color, who respond in personally defensive ways, and who take it upon themselves to instruct others about the “real problem” in their own community.

If nothing else, McDevitt should be aware that many people will not agree with his assessment, and he should be ready to hear them out. Among the complicated factors that contribute to the racial disparities in the justice system – including high crime in impoverished neighborhoods and social structures underlying them – McDevitt should be ready to consider the possibility that bias in the practices, structures, habits and attitudes within the system plays a role.

McDevitt has done a lot for the community. He is widely and deservedly admired. Perhaps it will dawn on him that listening to others does not dilute your integrity. It demonstrates it.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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