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Police Shootings, Consequences, and The City of Refuge

What will happen to the officer who shot Terence Crutcher?

September 26, 2016
YouTube / Tulsa PD
A still from the cash cam video of Terence Crutcher shooting. YouTube / Tulsa PD
YouTube / Tulsa PD
A still from the cash cam video of Terence Crutcher shooting. YouTube / Tulsa PD

Another day, another cop shooting, another dead black guy.

This past Friday, Tulsa police shot Terence Crutcher to death after he approached his SUV with his arms raised. His SUV had broken down and two people had called the police, presumably because they felt unsafe that a black guy, whom one officer called “a bad dude,” was roaming the highways without a handler.

I’m not even angry; I can’t be because I feel too exhausted. During the hours I spend trying to write this article, I mostly just ended up staring at the screen in a near-crippling state, watching yet another video, on loop, that made my jaw drop to the floor and make sure that my family, sitting not a few feet away from me, was OK.

A few days prior to the Crutcher shooting, I learned that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had ruled, as one headline read, that “black men may have legitimate reason to flee police,” in relation to a 2011 break-in, in which a black man named Jimmy Warren was convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm. “The court made two major findings,” reported WBUR. “The justices said police didn’t have the right to stop Warren in the first place, and the fact that he ran away shouldn’t be used against him.”

The word that stands out to me? “May,” as in, “black men may have legitimate reason to flee police.”

Right. I’d say so.

* * *

A couple of weeks and Torah portions ago we encountered the concept of the City of Refuge, in Deutoronomy 19. These were Levite cities to which one would flee in the event that they killed someone. There they would await trial—safe from the retribution of vengeful relatives—and if it was proven that they committed premeditated murder, they would be sentenced to death. However, if it was proven that they accidentally caused the victim’s death, they returned to the city of refuge and remained there in exile until the death of the High Priest.

Not long after finding out about Terence Crutcher’s murder, I came across this article from 2014, about the constant threat of terrorism. In it, the author decries that there are no modern-day “protected spaces [where] you [can] feel safe from the sudden arrival of someone or something intent on revenge.” While I understand the sentiment, the article has the wrong conception of the City of Refuge. It is not a “safe space” of sanctuary. It is a place of exile. It is a space of expiation. And—given the low occurrence rate of death sentences being declared by a Jewish court—they were likely were filled with actual murderers against whom adequate proof could not be found.

When I think about the City of Refuge I can’t help but see its corrupted form in every police shooting of an unarmed black man or woman, in which the perpetrating officers face consequences that do not match their actions. Too many times I’ve read about their subsequent “flights,” to the refuge of paid administrative leave and the like, to comfortably and safely awaiting a trial that more often than does not happen.

And then the exile never comes, and justice, whatever that means, is not served. And, truth is, I’m expecting no different in the case of Terrence Crutcher. Why should I?

MaNishtana is the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, an Orthodox African-American Jewish writer, speaker, rabbi, and author of Thoughts From A Unicorn. His latest book is Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi.