Thursday, August 11, 2016
Old Blue Eyes Isn’t Black
We know police officers place themselves in harm’s way, day-in and day-out. The vast majority are selfless dedicated public servants. Many are themselves minorities, some rising from some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the nation. They are acutely aware that there is greater risk in pockets of poverty, where gangs proliferate, and that for a significant number of urban areas, those inner city gangs have defined too many inner neighborhoods as their turf.
And while cops know that someone with an arrest record, particularly a felony and even more particularly someone with a sub-standard education, has pretty much decimated their ability to make a real and legitimate living, they’re not social workers. They do not create an atmosphere where employers just don’t want ex-cons. Cops are not the policy-makers. But they have to live with the results of a society where zealots, slogan-mongers and politicians catering to the lowest common denominator often are.
But there is a bigger issue when we examine where police enforce these laws with lethal results. “Short cuts” – like planting drugs and guns… or rewriting an incident report in favor of a fellow officer who probably crossed the line – were not infrequently standard operating procedures in too many police departments charged with walking or driving inner city beats. A mindset that equated inner city minorities (read: blacks and Latinos) with crime became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Riots at perceived police excesses – from the Rodney King incident to Watts and Ferguson, Missouri – occasionally expressed the seething anger in these communities at what was widely believed to be a legal system with a built-in bias, a double standard, where whites were often given a free pass as blacks and Latinos were subjected to constant police scrutiny.
The change in our collective perception began with increasing numbers of amateur videographers recording biased police over-reactions. As smart phones added video capacity with an instant upload feature, as social media became de facto society’s community bulletin board, America… even the rest of the world… became a silent witness to a roiling litany of police shootings of unarmed black men and boys.
The silence escalated into a muttering, which morphed into an audio-visual tsunami. Political awareness exploded. The “Black Lives Matter” was born, and open signs of government bias against African-Americans – like flying Confederate flags over statehouses – were finally addressed. Cops were increasingly required to wear body cameras… with an interesting number of such devices “falling off” just as a potentially violent arrest is about to take place.
Good cops blanched. This was not about them, but they got swept into the maelstrom, grouped with the “bad apples” and found “guilty” by local communities… even without having fired a shot. Revenge-seekers felt justified in randomly shooting police officers merely because they were wearing a police uniform.
Guns proliferated with large magazine assault rifles, sniper rifles and other military-style weapons becoming readily available to ordinary citizens – including more than a fair share of convicted felons, mentally unstable shooters and folks looking for the challenge of confrontation. Military tactics and tactical weapons – including armored personnel carriers – permeated even small-town police departments. The threat of “terrorism” – foreign and domestic – created a push for greater leeway for cops to have such abilities… even if they used such tactics and equipment for relatively minor offenses.
The reaction among conservative white traditionalists – usually in the 53 states where the legislature/governor were Republican-controlled – was not positive. Deep resentment at singling out “Black Lives” to “Matter” at the exclusion of Blue or White Lives exploded. That a racially-defined community was voting for “me” with a specific problem often fell on deaf ears.
Laws justifying homicide increased: “stand your ground” or “your home is your castle” allowed citizens (and of course cops) to kill under circumstances that would have at least generated a manslaughter felony conviction without such statutes. Judges and juries routinely exonerated police officers charged in connection with unarmed blacks. Minorities still felt the pain, still believed that, in such circumstances, that double standard gave police officers increasing leeway to shoot unarmed black males under what was perceived situations where white counterparts would have nothing to fear. Statistics proved that their perception was justified.
New York Times writer, Joseph Goldstein (on July 28th), presents an obvious question: should police be held to a lower or high standard of justification when deploying lethal force? Today, it is pretty clearly a lower threshold. He writes: “The longstanding official deference to the viewpoint of police officers is enshrined in the laws of some states and Supreme Court rulings. And the ambush attacks that left eight officers dead in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La., this month left many in the country with a jarring sense of the dangers of police work.
“But that deference is being questioned in an era when millions of people are viewing footage of police shootings and making their own judgments. As more encounters are captured by surveillance systems, bystanders’ cellphones or officers’ body cameras, the public is scrutinizing, case by case, officers’ decisions to use lethal force. The law’s posture toward the police is being measured against human lives, with the names of the dead becoming watchwords in the national debate over reforming the criminal justice system.
“Some lawyers and activists say the legal standards — on top of the circumstances of individual police killings — have contributed to racial tensions and the challenges confronting American policing… ‘The legal standards we have do not hold police sufficiently accountable for their conduct,’ said Anthony L. Ricco, a New York defense lawyer whose clients over the years have included both a police officer accused of killing an unarmed black man as well as a man who murdered an officer.
“Of particular frustration for the movement, organized under the banner Black Lives Matter, is that the legal standard focuses not on the guilt or the innocence of the person who is shot but on whether an officer would have perceived a threat in the encounter. And, some legal experts said, there is the possibility that racial biases may account for why a particular encounter felt dangerous. If officers tend to respond more aggressively toward black suspects as opposed to white suspects in similar situations, Mr. Ricco said, ‘we allow this mind-set to become the standard by which we judge these cases.’
“While there have been indictments in a few recent high-profile killings by the police, like in Chicago and South Carolina, both of those cases involved video recordings that contradicted officers’ accounts… Many legal experts doubt that criminal prosecutions are likely to deliver the type of reform the Black Lives Matter movement has sought, both because of how rarely the facts surmount the legal standard and because trials of individual officers will not necessarily change departmental policies.”
Our elected representatives, our courts, have set the lax standards for justifiable homicide-by-cop. Very few inner city residents believe that these standards are remotely justified, that they have risks just living in those neighborhoods that whites in neighboring communities have never and will never face. If there is going to be a change, a uniform standard of justice… it has to start both at the community level and at the highest levels of government. If most of us do not demand equal justice under the law… we will never get equal justice under the law. And doesn’t the Constitution clearly promise equal protection under the law? Have we breached that social contract?
I’m Peter Dekom, and we have created a system of justice, of socio-economic practices, that all but insure the perpetuation of a profoundly unequal system under the color of law.