May 18, 2021
What could have happened to Richard Solitro Jr.?
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At Bellwether Education Partners, my work focuses primarily on the places in which schools come into contact with other child-serving systems. In doing so, I spend a lot of time thinking about how schools can better support students who have come into contact with these systems, including the courts and law enforcement.
Four weeks ago, I watched the police shoot and kill a man.
I am a civil rights attorney by training and education advocate by trade. I have spent much of my professional life examining systemic inequity for young people who are farthest from opportunity: those who experience disruptions to their education pathways because of experiences like a placement in foster care, an experience with homelessness, or an incarceration. Many of the students I talk to have experienced the negative consequences of policing in their own lives.
I can rattle off statistics about the effects of aggressive policing and police violence shootings in America. And I can point you to the research that demonstrates that this approach — an approach that does not keep anyone any safer — comes at a huge cost. It is just one slice of the violent pie in America’s punitive systems.
I have also experienced the consequences of gun violence in my own family. Both my father and my godson were shot and killed in separate incidents, decades apart.
But none of this prepared me for what I saw on the afternoon of April 24.
I was driving home from an errand and found myself suddenly stopped behind a police car as two officers confronted another driver less than a block ahead of me. Within seconds, I watched as the police fired three shots at an unarmed man in distress and killed him. To be clear, I am not the important part of this story, I am just the one who is here to tell it.
And race is also part of this story, even though it is rendered invisible: While white people have been able to remain largely insulated from the direct effects of police violence, Richard Solitro Jr., the man the police killed, was white, as am I. If he had been Black, as many victims of police violence are, this would not be any less awful. And it is not less significant because he was white.
It was a destabilizing, traumatic event to witness but, of course, not an uncommon one. On average, police in America kill three men a day. Each one of those people has a family and most of those events have witnesses. The twin horrors of what I saw are both the tragic and unnecessary loss of Richard Solitro Jr. and the unavoidable acceptance of the fact that my experience of having seen it happen is nothing special. The police kill an average of a thousand people a year and so I probably did not even witness the only fatal police shooting in the U.S. that day.
For white people, for professionals with degrees and laptop jobs, nice cars, or comfortable homes in “good” neighborhoods, it is always tempting to take a detached view of horrible things, that they are tragedies happening somewhere else. The reality is quite different and much less reassuring: We are all at risk of experiencing police violence and unless we actively work against it, we are all implicated in its perpetuation. People of color (especially Black men) and trans people have been saying this for years. A “community affected by police violence” is no outlier when the risk of it happening to you — or in front of you — is inescapable no matter where you are. When police have lethal power that is effectively unchecked, some of us can be safer than others, but no one can be completely safe. If the police decide to kill someone in front of you, they will. If the police decide to kill you, they will. And with rare exception, they will get away with it.
Two days after this happened, we published “Investing in Healthy Transitions to Adulthood: The Role of Schools.” This piece was long in the works but it took on renewed urgency for me. Richard Solitro Jr. was in desperate need of mental health services. His family had been asking for help for years but none ever came, and all he got was the barrel of a gun.
This story is not new. What we can ask now is what could have happened if Richard Solitro Jr. had lived in a country where we put needs first, rather than consequences, and focused our investments on the evidence-based programs that we know work?