I never thought I would see the day when police officers and criminals would bear the same likeness. In the wake of two of the most controversial grand jury decisions of late (Mike Brown and Eric Garner), an undercurrent of distrust and outrage has begun to erode the landscape of police integrity across our nation. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell the difference between a cold-blooded murderer and a corrupt cop. The badge that police officers don (usually in the shape of a shield) is supposed to represent a creed and a vow to shield the public from dangerous criminal activity. Lately, however, it seems to provide sanctuary for hardened racists and trigger-happy “good ole boys,” all grown up. These are the type of people who wield guns and dish out lethal force in the name of “reasonable” suspicion and “probable” cause. What recourse do we have when the creed to protect and serve becomes a scheme to assault and assassinate?
The problem with the recent events in Ferguson and New York is the fact that officers Daniel Pantaleo and Darren Wilson had a choice, and they chose to kill. I understand that sometimes extenuating circumstances surrounding certain events produce reactions which are based in heightened emotions. However, with power and authority comes great responsibility. Cops should never be absolved of their responsibility to use all available training, tools, and judgment to ensure preservation of life in every situation if at all possible. I can’t help but question the protocols and procedures that are in place concerning the rules of engagement for the unarmed and defenseless, and how those rules differ in the face of skin color. It would seem that a different set of rules apply to African-American men as opposed to Whites when cops are involved.
As I peruse news headlines, I’m infuriated by how the machine known as the media manipulates our perception of actual events. For those of us who are not there to witness these confrontations, we find ourselves at the mercy of the media. This, combined with the decaying moral fabric of both law enforcement and prosecuting attorneys, creates the perfect trifecta (police, prosecutors, and media) which facilitates the creation and abetment of these monsters we call cops. Of course I refuse to employ marginalization by insinuating that all cops are corrupt. I think we can agree that is the farthest thing from the truth. There are many police officers who uphold the law and are very good at it. However, when it comes to the simple fact that countless men of color have been brutally murdered by law enforcement, with few to no repercussions, the question begs to be asked: How does race factor into law enforcement?
By now, it’s no secret that the police force has traditionally been the instrument of racial terrorism. Dating back to Reconstruction, immediately after the abolition of slavery, the law has been used to target and incapacitate people of color (see Black Codes). The genesis of the crisis at hand dates back to a series of Supreme Court decisions that set precedent for allowing racial profiling by law enforcement; the most prominent being Terry v. Ohio. In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander sites this case as she pontificates the process by which the legal system has been systematically rigged, thus creating the proverbial albatross around the neck of young African-American men.
In the 1968, Terry v. Ohio decision, the Supreme Court decided that it is permissible to “stop and frisk” a person based on a “reasonable suspicion” that they are involved in criminal activity. In my opinion, this has opened an enormous can of worms, and fueled a fire that has burned out of control for so many years. The natural degradation of this process now allows a cop to stop anyone for absolutely no reason at all, and as long as that person consents to a search, “probable cause” is no longer needed.
What exactly constitutes “reasonable suspicion?” This has been the topic of heated discussions among legal analysts across the nation. Stopping someone based on confirmed suspicious behavior is one thing, but using lethal force on unarmed individuals is definitely “unreasonable.”
What’s even more deplorable is the convoluted set of loop holes that we call the justice system, and what happens when a police officer stands trial for criminal charges, such as in the Brown and Garner cases. According to an article published on Slate.com, only 1 in 3 police officers charged with criminal conduct are actually convicted. One logical explanation for this is the relationship between police and prosecutors, and the lack of motivation that exists to pursue an indictment in cases involving police killings. This has created a plush system of apathy, steeped in political and social bias for most law enforcement officers, that has given rise to a type of shield for the shield. The message that it sends to our communities is sickening and inflammatory to say the least.
The media has contributed to this social inflammation, by inundating our senses with information that is not always pertinent to the truth of what actually took place. Instead of just focusing on the fact that these men of color were 1) unarmed and 2) clearly surrendering before the time of death, they bring into magnification the character flaws of each victim in an effort to dilute and justify the heinousness of the acts.
The fact is, there are alternatives to illegal choke holds and kill shots to the head that will effectively immobilize an assailant for the sake of situational assessment. The deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, coupled with the Supreme Court decisions to not indict, testify to the fact that cops are still permitted to take lives at will in the name of “reasonable suspicion.” The inconvenient truth is these two African-American lives never posed a viable threat, when they were extinguished under the guise of the shield.
In light of these recent grand jury decisions, one clear message has been declared and proven:
The American justice system is not blind at all. It is indeed a dubiously flawed institution, holding in one hand a protective shield, and in the other a fatal sword.
Works cited: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Michelle Alexander. The New Press, New York, NY, 2012.
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