“I’m going to die for no other reason than I am black and my skin color is somehow a threat.” That’s how Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett described his fear in a letter to the world detailing an August 26 police stop in Las Vegas that, in his telling, went very wrong.
“A police officer ordered me to get on the ground,” Bennett wrote. “As I laid on the ground, complying with his commands not to move, he placed his gun near my head and warned me that if I moved he would ‘blow my fucking head off.’ Terrified and confused by what was taking place, a second officer came over and forcefully jammed his knee into my back, making it difficult for me to breathe. They then cinched the handcuffs on my wrists so tight that my fingers went numb.”
The stop apparently began when Bennett was in Las Vegas to watch the Mayweather-McGregor boxing match in August. As he left the fight, he said he heard gun shots and, like other people in the area, ran away from the sound. He wrote, “Las Vegas police officers singled me out and pointed their guns at me for doing nothing more than simply being a black man in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“The Officers’ excessive use of force was unbearable,” Bennett went on. “I felt helpless as I lay there on the ground handcuffed facing the real-life threat of being killed. All I could think of was ‘I’m going to die for no other reason than I am black and my skin color is somehow a threat.’ My life flashed before my eyes as I thought of my girls. Would I ever play with them again? Or watch them have kids? Or be able to kiss my wife again and tell her I love her?”
Video released by TMZ Sports shows part of the stop, but it doesn’t show the use of force that Bennett described. In the video, he told police officers, “I wasn't doing nothing, man. I was here with my friends. They told us to get out. Everybody ran.”
In a news conference, Las Vegas police said Bennett was not targeted because of his race. Las Vegas Metropolitan Police undersheriff Kevin McMahill explained, according to the Washington Post:
As they moved toward the nightclub, an individual later identified as Bennett was seen crouched down behind a gaming machine as the officers approached. Once Bennett was in the officers’ view, he quickly ran out of the south doors, jumped over a wall onto Flamingo Road east of Las Vegas Boulevard into traffic.
Due to Bennett’s actions and the information the officers had at the time, they believed Bennett may have been involved in the shooting and they gave chase. Bennett was placed into handcuffs and detained while officers determined whether or not he was involved in the original incident. He was detained for approximately 10 minutes and released.
Mr. Bennett, at the scene, had the incident explained to him by a supervisor and he said that he understood and that he had no problem with what the officers did, just the one that he claimed the officer had pointed a gun at his head.
An internal investigation is currently underway. The arresting officer did not have his body camera turned on at the time of the incident.
In his letter, Bennett said he has “retained Oakland Civil Rights Attorney John Burris to investigate and explore all my legal options including filing a civil rights lawsuit for the violation of my constitutional rights.” He said he will continue protesting against police brutality and inequality, particularly by declining to stand during the National Anthem — a protest that began with Colin Kaepernick, a football player who drew national attention for his in-game protests.
“This fact is unequivocally, without question why before every game, I sit during the national anthem — because equality doesn’t live in this country and no matter how much money you make, what job title you have, or how much you give, when you are seen as a ‘Ni**er,’ you will be treated that way,” he wrote. “The system failed me. I can only imagine what Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Charleena Lyles felt.”
Black people are much more likely to be killed by police than their white peers
The last part of Bennett’s letter refers to a disturbing trend in American policing: Black people are much more likely to be shot and killed by law enforcement than their white peers.
Based on nationwide data collected by the Guardian, black Americans are more than twice as likely as their white counterparts to be killed by police when accounting for population. In 2016, police killed black Americans at a rate of 6.66 per 1 million people, compared to 2.9 per 1 million for white Americans.
There have also been several high-profile police killings since 2014 involving black suspects. In Baltimore, six police officers were indicted for the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. In North Charleston, South Carolina, Michael Slager was charged with murder and fired from the police department after shooting Walter Scott, who was fleeing and unarmed at the time. In Ferguson, Darren Wilson killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. In New York City, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner by putting the unarmed 43-year-old black man in a chokehold.
One possible explanation for the racial disparities: Police tend to patrol high-crime neighborhoods, which are disproportionately black. That means they’re going to be generally more likely to initiate a policing action, from traffic stops to more serious arrests, against a black person who lives in these areas. And all of these policing actions carry a chance, however small, to escalate into a violent confrontation.
That’s not to say that higher crime rates in black communities explain the entire racial disparity in police shootings. A 2015 study by researcher Cody Ross found, “There is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates.” That suggests something else — such as, potentially, racial bias — is going on.
One reason to believe racial bias is a factor: Studies show that officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, said it’s possible the bias could lead to even more skewed outcomes in the field. “In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training,” he said, “we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them.”
These are the facts that animate comments like Bennett’s — and why he and other NFL players now refuse to stand up during the National Anthem for as long as they see police brutality continuing in America.
For more on American policing’s problems and how to fix them, read Vox’s explainer.