The imagery surrounding how police responded to an accused triple murderer in Virginia this week was jarring enough: Video showed a naked man chasing what appeared to be a cowardly, back-peddling police officer who was running away in apparent fear for his life even though he was holding a rifle. Then, on top of that, the news was horrifying: that naked man, Matthew Bernard, was suspected of killing his mother, his sister and his 14-month-old nephew in Pittsylvania County on Tuesday.
But when combining those aforementioned factors — a violent white suspect and a white police officer — then the scenario becomes a little more plausible, considering Bernard was still alive to tell his side of the story. It was a far cry from any number of the seemingly nonstop flow of controversial police encounters with Black people; encounters that typically turn out to be deadly more times than not.
The still shots from the video of Bernard chasing the still-unidentified officer, who was apparently trained to run away from unarmed white men suspected of multiple murders, were still raising eyebrows days after his safe arrest was announced. It stood in stark contrast to the imagery we’ve seen from police officers who escalate situations with Black suspects compared to how the officer in Pittsylvania, who did everything within his power not to even aim his service weapon.
But it took a Facebook post by David Dennis Jr. to truly put things in their proper perspective.
The post showed a photo of Bernard chasing the Pittsylvania cop above a photo of now-former North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager shooting Walter Scott in the back as he fled after being pulled over for a nonviolent traffic offense. It was accompanied by the phrase, “Two America,” a fittingly brief description for an overall image that spoke 1,000 words.
At this point, no one is surprised at the unequal treatment, since that has been all but the basis of Black folks’ existences in America for centuries. But we’ve seen it especially magnified in recent months, including when cops were able to safely apprehend the white El Paso mass shooter earlier this month. Yet, across the state of Texas in Baytown, an officer somehow couldn’t seem to control his killer instinct when he struggled with and shot an unarmed Black grandmother in an apartment building complex’s parking lot in May.
From Timothy Loehmann gunning down 12-year-old Tamir Rice within seconds to Amadou Diallo being killed in a hail of 41 NYPD bullets — and the dozens and dozens of other similar examples — the treatment out of Pittsylvania County prompted many people to wonder what would have happened if Bernard was a Black man.
The disparity along racial lines in treatment from police continues to be a major issue in America, and Tuesday’s episode surely didn’t help matters. To be clear, no one is suggesting that the unnamed, frightened police officer who ran away from Bernard should have pulled out his service weapon and unloaded on the naked and unarmed white man. But it’s not asking too much for every police officer who finds himself confronting an unarmed suspect to use the same energy that cop used in abstaining from using lethal force. Or is it?