Rationalizing the Deaths of Unarmed Black Men: From Ferguson to Boston

October 13, 2015 | Philip Martin


There is an acute frustration experienced in Black and African American communities across the nation in their relationship with police. It is based on the belief that no matter what the circumstances of a police killing of a Black individual, law enforcement officials, local district attorneys, media, and a divided public will find ways to rationalize those deaths. In the case of Danroy “DJ” Henry, a Black Pace University student shot to death by an officer who jumped on the hood of the young man’s car and fired point blank through the window, police leaked an allegedly flawed autopsy report suggesting that Henry was inebriated, thus blaming the victim. In regard to Michael Brown, the Black teenager whose shooting death in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked several nights of unrest last summer, video footage was released by police showing him minutes earlier grabbing items illegally from a store and then pushing the store owner away when he tried to intervene.  

My reason for pursuing this particular angle in exploring the police killings of unarmed Black men is because it is a recurring theme, with few exceptions, to publicly portray the victims as culpable by reason of their perceived imperfections, ranging from having an arrest record to having a drink. These rationalizations may have served as mitigating circumstances that have factored into grand jury decisions not to indict the police officers in question.  

My objective in focusing attention on rationalizations is hoping that journalists in particular will ask law enforcement officials to explain why they are raising certain issues that may be connected to the shooting victim but have no direct or obvious connection to his or her death by police.  


Phillip Martin is senior investigative reporter for WGBH in Boston. He is also a senior fellow with the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. Phillip worked previously as a supervising senior editor for National Public Radio (NPR) and was NPR’s first national race relations correspondent. He has received various journalism honors. Phillip was a Harvard University Nieman Fellow, and he earned a master’s degree in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. 

 Phillip’s public radio report, “Rationalizing the Deaths of Unarmed Black Men: From Ferguson to Boston,” is a 2015 Media for a Just Society Award Finalist. A version of this report, which first aired on WGBH, was also published in The Huffington Post.