Police in Bardstown, Kentucky, shot a man named John Kennedy Fenwick on Sunday, following a long and destructive car chase that ended when a sheriff’s deputy wrestled Fenwick out of the stolen truck he was driving. A scuffle ensued, in which authorities say Fenwick attempted to disarm the deputy and the deputy shot him. The miles-long pursuit left injured officers and mangled police cruisers in its wake. Fenwick, 25, is expected to survive his wounds.
In a press conference Monday, Nelson County Sheriff Ed Mattingly, who is white, expressed relief — not only that the incident didn’t lead to more serious injuries, but also that Fenwick’s skin wasn’t darker.
“We are glad that he is white, and we shouldn’t have to be worried about that,” Mattingly said Monday. “And we do not want any backlash or violence in this community because people have been misinformed. I think that the public needs to know how the criminal justice system works and… what officers are able to do.”
(The sheriff’s remarks come about 30 seconds into the video above, at 12:45.)
Mattingly’s comments come amid a nationwide debate over law enforcement tactics, police misconduct and the relationship between officers and the people they are tasked with protecting. Many high-profile cases in recent months have focused on various officers’ treatment of people of color — especially young black males, who are 21 times more likely to be killed by an officer than their white peers.
During the press conference, Mattingly acknowledged the heightened attention to police violence in the past year following the deaths of unarmed black men in New York City, Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, among other places. But he appeared to blame the media for creating much of the controversy.
“We must take notice of previous cases and how the media has handled those situations. We want the public to be informed and accurately informed. We do not want trouble,” Mattingly said Monday. “The media has not done a very good job of informing the public, and the public is not educated on how the system actually works.”
In an interview with The Huffington Post on Wednesday, Mattingly said he’d received some calls from people who were upset about his remarks. He said he was surprised that people had gotten so worked up, and added that he wasn’t sure how his community or the media might have reacted if Fenwick had not been white.
“I don’t want what has happened in these other communities to happen here. I don’t have a magic eight ball to predict the future, I just don’t want that to happen,” he said. “Some people took that comment as being racist, and I had no intention of that coming across that way and I’m sorry if that comment bothered some people.”
Yet Mattingly’s remarks about the significance of race and the role of the media don’t seem racist so much as simply out of touch. That perspective seems to assume that the public is incapable of objective analysis when it comes to police-involved shootings — that a) the public only cares when the victim is black, and b) the public will rush in to protest any use of force against a black person, without stopping to hear the facts first.
According to law enforcement officials, Fenwick rammed a police cruiser with his truck as an officer was getting out of it, then smashed into another cruiser so hard that it burst into flames. He then struck a third police car before attempting to take a deputy’s weapon. The officers were left with minor injuries and will recover. If this account is accurate, the use of lethal force will likely be found to have been legal.
And if this is indeed what happened, it seems unlikely that such a ruling would be controversial, regardless of the color of Fenwick’s skin. People of all races and backgrounds are shot by police under justifiable circumstances every year. And while advocates for police reform have called for more precise information about how many civilians meet this fate, they don’t disagree that lethal force is a necessary recourse in some cases.
But Mattingly’s tone-deaf analysis of Fenwick’s case also speaks to a deeper misunderstanding of why police reform and institutional racism have become such passionately debated topics this year. The deaths of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Natasha McKenna, Michael Brown and Tony Robinson didn’t become front-page news simply because each person was black and had his or her life tragically cut short. They became the subject of national scrutiny in large part because each incident seemed so inexplicable — why did this person have to die? — and because so many of them contributed to a pattern of law enforcement officials evidently doing more to obscure the truth than to reveal it. Each death reinforced the grim reality that black individuals are more likely to be targeted by police and more likely to die in subsequent confrontations.
None of this is to say that every instance of a cop arresting, shooting or even killing a black person is unjustified or illegal. It would be hard, for example, to argue in the defense of a suspect — of whatever race — who shot at a police officer and was killed by police in turn. But it’s necessary to take both the bigger picture and the individual details of a case into account as we continue to debate the police tactics we are subjected to.