The Question Never Asked
The question of motives is one unasked to the point that its very absence is conspicuous. This is most evident in crimes involving law enforcement. When an individual attacks the police our first instinct should be to ask what their problem with the police was. This is the approach we take with all other crimes. If an individual kills his or her family, for example, we don’t hesitate to explore the motives. The exploration of motives typically includes the relationship the victimizer had with his or her victims. There is no hesitation in laying out family issues such as domestic abuse, infidelity, financial problems, mental illness or any other factors however remotely related they may be. The motives are not taken to justify, but to explain.
Yet, when it is the police who are targets the exploration of motives is simply not there. If a motive is sought it often sidesteps the critical question: why the police? Any attempt to raise this question is not met with impartiality, balance or a journalistic desire to explore the full story. Instead, it is quickly dismissed as “offensive.” In some cases to even raise the specter of this question is to incur the ire of police unions.
Below are three cases from this July. John Huggins is accused of planning to assassinate police officers and blow up a police station, Major Davis Jr. shot a police officer in what seems to be a state of agitation and Lawrence Campbell allegedly stole a firearm and ambushed the responders. The cases all share in common the fact that police officers were the targets. They also share in common the fact that an exploration of why police officers were the targets is either absent or deliberately obfuscated.
Huggins, Davis Jr. & Campbell
In Utah a man named John Huggins was arrested for plotting to assassinate police officers and blow up a police station. His plan was thwarted by an anonymous tip, a confidential information and an undercover FBI agent. The narrative cycled throughout the mainstream media has been shallow: Huggins built an explosive device and wanted to spark an anti-government uprising. Aside from that little has been said of his motives, beliefs, goals or ideology.
The Desert News, a Utah-based news service that interviewed Huggins’ ex-wife, made an exceptional nod toward addressing Huggins’ motives. Instead of examining the rationale or political beliefs of Huggins, however, it focused on his past military career and his “fascination” with explosives. The Desert News fell short of asking why Huggins targeted police officers.
A second recent event is the shooting of Officer Perry Renn of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. Renn responded to a call of shots fired. When Renn and Davis Jr. encountered one another near a Renn family cookout they got into a gunfight. Renn was killed and Davis Jr. was wounded.
Davis Jr. had a history of nonviolent crime. Davis Jr.’s father, Major Davis Sr., had died while in police custody. A controversial article from WISH-TV hit social media. WISH-TV had dared to interview Davis Jr.’s family. Davis Jr.’s mother, Pamela Moornan, said that Davis Jr. had been scarred for life both by past treatment at the hands of the IMPD and the death of his father in IMPD custody.
The short interview with Davis Jr.’s mother quickly became one of WISH-TV’s most viewed and most controversial articles. Steve Bray, News Director for WISH-TV, did damage control. Bray amended the interview with an introduction that seems to be a mixture between a disclaimer and an apology. In the amendment prayers are extended to Renn’s family, Renn is called a hero, the “Thin Blue Line” is thanked, and Bray noted that the “vast majority” of WISH-TV’s coverage of the incident still “honors the fallen officer for his service.” A link was posted to a second article allowing the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Chief, Rick Hite, and the Public Safety Director, Troy Riggs, to respond to the interview with Davis Jr.’s family.
The final event is the shooting of Officer Melvin Santiago of New Jersey. Lawrence Campbell stole a firearm from a security guard, apologized to a witness, then waited for police officers to respond. Campbell shot and killed Santiago on arrival. Campbell was also killed in the shootout.
This story quickly attracted additional attention. Angelique Campbell, the wife of Lawrence Campbell, said that she wished Lawrence had killed more cops. Angelique also said she still loved Lawrence regardless of the shooting. And Angelique questioned why an ambulance was called for the wounded officer but not for her husband, Lawrence, who was on the ground for five hours. Campbell’s neighborhood in Jersey City erected a shrine memorializing the late Campbell.
The mayor of Jersey City, Steve Fulop, called Angelique Campbell “maniacal and crazy.” Fulop ordered that the memorial be removed. The police also removed a second memorial dedicated to an unrelated man who was shot by police, Lavon King. The city’s two police unions hired a PR firm to release a statement condemning both the memorial and Angelique’s statements. Angelique was eventually compelled to issue an apology under media pressure.
An Exploration Of Motives
In revisiting the case of John Huggins we still do not know why he wanted to assassinate police officers and blow up a police station. All we know is that he wanted to spark a revolution. Yet this could apply to any number of groups. The goal of “revolution” does not mean the same thing across the board. Was he a white supremacist, a member of a far-right “Patriot” group, or a left-wing anarchist? His political motives are largely unknown.
It is an indictment of the existing media coverage that we don’t know what Huggins’ political motives were. This is because his plot was explicitly political. To fixate on his personality, as the Desert News did in its interview with his ex-wife, is nonsensical. We don’t fixate on the personality traits of Islamic extremists. Instead, we explore their political beliefs and motives regardless of if we agree with them.
We are even able to realize at this point that terrorism is caused in part by foreign military intervention. Terrorism is not solely rooted in extremist belief, but also fostered by a sense that extremist attacks are a direct response to a war that the West has declared. Regardless of the validity of this belief, that is a real motive in the minds of extremists. Why, then, would we not expect the exact same behavior domestically from individuals who feel they have been abused by the police?
The family of Major Davis Jr. gave us an insight into what may have been going through his head. Davis Jr. was himself a victim of the drug war. His father died while in police custody. Is that not enough to explain why he might decide to shoot a cop instead of submitting? No one has to agree with or approve of his motive. But to ignore the motive, to pussyfoot around it, is intellectually dishonest.
When an entire community rallies around a man who killed a police officer, as in the case of Lawrence Campbell, we have to start asking why. When Campbell’s wife says she wished that Campbell had killed more police she is not speaking alone. She is expressing a sentiment that many people in her community share. It is hard to seriously dismiss an entire neighborhood as “insane” as we do with the individual. The tactic used to marginalize the individual doesn’t work to marginalize an entire community.
Perhaps we should state the reality. Many people within the most impoverished communities in the United States of America have been the repeat victims of police officers. Almost all of these individuals have been, or know someone who has been, victimized by the police. Most victimizations involve drug crimes. And some of these victims cheer in their hearts, if not out loud, when they see a police officer get killed. They feel they are in the midst of a war. Decades of drug war rhetoric further validates this belief. We can’t be surprised, then, if they react to a dead police officer the way some Americans react to a dead insurgent in Iraq: celebration.
We don’t have to agree with how they feel, but it is intentional blindness to ignore how they feel. We don’t have to like it, but that’s the real motive.