True Justice Needed
Recently, there have been several instances of unarmed young black men being shot and killed by police in the course of their duties. This has continued a more long-term trend of perceived inequality in the treatment meted out in our justice system based on race. The trend includes a very easily recognized failure to bring to justice members of the police officers responsible for the shootings and other actions resulting in the deaths of unarmed suspects.
The shooting in Ferguson, MO, last summer of Michael Brown and the killing of Eric Garner in New York are but two of the more recent incidents in which Police officers caused the deaths of unarmed people of color suspected of committing minor offenses. Their deaths caused protests at the time which were subsequently exacerbated by paramilitary police reaction to peaceful protests Situations were later made worse by exoneration of the officers responsible by grand juries unwilling to even indict them on any charges whatsoever for their acts.
A cursory glance at crime and punishment statistics in this country shows that there is a definite overall bias of our justice system that favors whites over people of color. Severity of punishments meted out tends to be higher for the latter than the former, resulting in our prisons being disproportionately populated by young men of color. The way in which the infamous War on Drugs has been waged has contributed mightily to this situation, with minority convicts receiving longer sentences for crimes which many see as being less serious than would require such strict punishment. Harsh mandatory minimum sentences aimed at perpetrators of drug offenses (many of which – such as marijuana possession – are now being eliminated or drastically reduced) are one example. The fact that the specific offenses most severely punished tend to be those predominantly committed by poor people and people of color as opposed to similar offenses predominantly committed my middle and upper class whites is also pointed out by many as evidence of an unjust system of criminal justice
The prison population itself brings to mind an old Richard Pryor comedy routine I recall from my youth where he referred to our justice system as being “just us” (referring to people of color) rather than “justice”. Imprisoning a disproportionate number of minority youths contributes greatly to the economic and social inequality faced by the group at large. How many poor single-parent families are created by unnecessary incarceration? How many lives are forever stripped of potential opportunity for career development and economic and social advancement predicated on the fact that someone committed a youthful indiscretion for which they are never forgiven by potential employers? How many people receive a real “second chance” when they check a box on an employment application that says they were convicted of a crime? How many of their children are indirectly sentenced to the undeserved punishment of restricted opportunity as a result of the poverty they grew grew up under for this reason? This all becomes a spiral of perpetual poverty for way too many people in this country.
In comparison to the two cases mentioned above, and many others which come up repeatedly in our society of what may be described as extrajudicial executions and/or violations of other civil rights by police of minority people, there seems to be a marked absence of such events resulting in the deaths of whites. This past fall, a white man in PA suspected of killing a state police officer and seriously wounding another, was successfully apprehended after a manhunt of several weeks – without being killed. Other examples of selectively treating those of color differently than whites when in police custody are included in the links below. People notice these events. Being outraged at the blatant inequality in treatment based on skin color is not unwarranted – especially in those people subjected to it day after day for years.
Police have a very difficult and dangerous job to perform. Forming mobs to mete out “justice” to punish those whose actions result in the deaths of citizens is not the answer. Contrary to some of the police who take offense at calls for change by protesters or elected officials, most people realize this. The recent execution of two police officers in New York is a case in point. The vast majority of people protesting against police brutality and injustices perpetrated by our legal system as a whole do not advocate ambushing and killing random police officers in the performance of their normal duties. That particular act says more about the need for stricter enforcement of and otherwise improving laws regarding who is not permitted to own a gun in our society than the need for cracking down on peaceful protest. Where is the outrage of these police officers when a child is gunned down for the offense of brandishing a toy gun?
Local prosecutors have a very obvious conflict of interest when it comes to investigating and prosecuting police officers in their jurisdiction. These cases must be removed from their caseloads and taken on by special prosecutors or those at the state or federal level who can be truly independent of the local police in their everyday law enforcement roles. For the grand juries in Missouri and New York to have indicted the police officers involved in the deaths of Brown and Garner would have been even more surprising than the lack of indictment was infuriating to the friends and families of the victims. Those prosecutors depend on the local police force for doing their jobs of enforcing the laws in the courts. They cannot alienate the police and expect to perform their duties successfully for long.
Police are hired to serve and protect the public. They cannot do so if they are so hamstrung that they die in the line of duty because they feel they can’t defend themselves in dangerous situations. Likewise, people need to be able to trust that they will not have to fear dying at the hands of a cop if they jaywalk or go down an unlit staircase in the dark unarmed. The idea is to have real independent investigations conducted when violent actions result in death. If I were to use a chokehold on someone and they died, I would rightly be held accountable for my actions in a court of law. People need to see that police are as accountable to the law as is everyone else. Let the courts decide in a fair trial. Not everyone would be delighted by the results, but fewer would be screaming in fury at the lack of any accountability such as occurred in the Ferguson and New York cases.
Some of the response to the shootings of police in New York have been way off base. Showing open contempt for the Mayor – who is accountable to all New Yorkers and not just the police – was inappropriate. His actions, on the other hand, have seemed to be more in line with reaching an acceptable solution to the grievances that have been expressed as a result of the death of Eric Garner and the unrest that has arisen as a result of the stop and frisk policy that has been in place in recent years, denying many of their civil rights – often on the basis of race.
Police need to be less of an occupying force in the cities and towns in which they serve. Elected community leaders and public servants of all sorts need to be more representative of the people they serve than is the case in many places in the US. Come to think of it, that is true of Congress and state legislatures as well. Ferguson is one example of how a police force can easily become so different from the people they serve that situations like the Michael Brown case can boil over and property damage and fatalities result. Police must be of the people, not above them. Their jobs will be far easier if they are seen as part of the community rather than a force to keep them in line for the benefit and security of the 1% and the privileged few. Perhaps then the phrase “with liberty and justice for all” could become more of an expression of reality and less a pipe dream.
Suggested Further Readings: