Kerwin Webb said he knows the terror that young Black men experience when being pulled over by police.
Webb said tensions are often high and adrenaline is rushing because in too many cases, Black people have lost their lives during police encounters.
So he understands why Jayland Walker led Akron, Ohio, police on a car chase and then ran on foot before eight officers fired dozens of bullets at him. Walker suffered at least 60 gunshot wounds.
“It’s the terror of knowing that no matter what you do, this may not end well,” said Webb, who heads a job and life skills program for young Black men in Asbury Park, New Jersey. “It’s an ingrained fear for your life. What is the best way for me to try to survive? It’s the reality of being Black in America.”
The police killing of 25-year-old Walker last month has reignited a conversation about the fear and panic Black Americans feel during police stops, with some suggesting that Walker ran because he wanted to survive.
Unarmed Black people are killed by police at a rate three times higher than White people, research shows. And many high-profile police killings of Black people in recent years started with a routine traffic stop. Notably, Philando Castile was fatally shot during a traffic stop in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in 2016. And in April, Patrick Lyoya was killed in Grand Rapids, Michigan, by officer Christopher Schurr, who was trying to arrest him after a traffic stop in a case that has drawn national attention because of the circumstances leading to the shooting and the multiple videos that show Lyoya’s final moments.
Black leaders in Akron and across the country say the experience of Black people, including witnessing deadly police encounters, has created a level of fear that explains why an innocent person would still run.
Walker, a Door Dash driver, was unarmed at the time he was killed and had no criminal record.
Webb said he advises the young Black men he mentors to comply with police when stopped, put their hands on the steering wheel where they can be seen, and answer, “Yes, Sir” or “No, Sir.” Still, Webb said, that doesn’t guarantee a Black person will walk away from the encounter.
Most young Black men in his community are terrified of having contact with police, Webb said. They also fear retaliation from police if they report abuse, he said.
“The thing that creates the distrust is their lived experience,” Walker said. “You can go back decades to Black families who have been terrorized by police.”
Black America’s strained relationship with police plays out in Akron every day, said local activist Raymond Greene.
Greene said Black residents are subjected to unnecessary harassment by police, and many complain of being treated unfairly during traffic stops. The incident prompted local leaders to call for changes in police procedures for car chases.
Greene said he believes Walker panicked when he saw the police cars and fled. He was a Black man driving at night and he had a gun in his vehicle, Greene said.
“He was scared,” said Greene, executive director of The Freedom BLOC. “I know that feeling. They pull you over and, before you stop all the way, there are four or five more (police) cars coming. They have two behind you, one in front of you and one on the side of you. It’s terrifying.”
Policing experts discourage running
But law enforcement experts say fleeing police is never a good response.
Charles Ramsey, the former Philadelphia police commissioner, said he understands the anxiety Black Americans feel during police stops. He raised his own son, now a police officer, to comply if ever pulled over. Still, Ramsey says running is “the absolute wrong thing to do” and it puts civilians more at risk.
“When you’re running, you raise the whole incident to a whole different level,” Ramsey said. “Why are you running? Are you involved in something I didn’t know about it?
“Police are being trained to deescalate, but deescalation comes from both sides.”
If police have reason to believe the person running is armed and a threat to the public, deadly use of force may be justified, said Ramsey, who declined to comment specifically on the Walker case because he needed more information.
Jason Johnson, president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, said he also believes Walker was fearful when he decided to run from police. But Johnson insists that the fear in the Black community is unnecessary because police are not widely abusive or widely racist.
He said the police killings of Black Americans that have received national attention are not normal occurrences.
“It seems like it’s a very common occurrence where this happens, when really it’s very rare,” Johnson said. “So, therefore, having fear of it probably isn’t reasonable.”