Grand Juries, Too Soft On Police Who Do Wrong?

In the United States, grand juries have suddenly become de rigueur but not in anything like a good way. To put it bluntly, too many white policemen are getting away with killing black men and Grand Juries are rubber-stamping the process.

Now before anyone climbs on their accusatory high moral horse suggesting this is biased and anti police, bad luck, I’ve beaten you to it. I’m already on it and riding at full gallop.

My high moral horse says the police are yet again culpable. The grand jury got it wrong and the facts speak for themselves.

This time it’s the New York Police under the microscope. Or, to be more accurate, captured on video.

The victim was Eric Garner, a 43-year-old African American, father of six children and a grandfather of two. On July 17 this year, he allegedly committed the heinous crime of selling individual cigarettes on a street corner in Staten Island. A group of New York City police officers approached and surrounded him. Why they did this is a question that was certainly never answered by the grand jury but it’s one that really does demand some kind of explanation in my view. What made this case radically different from all the others, was that cell phone footage was recorded by an onlooker, as the drama unfolded. And because the footage was shared online, the one eyewitness became millions more.

Garner was genuinely puzzled that the police officers seemed intent on arresting him for such a trifling offence. He was a big man, but at no point did he behave aggressively towards the officers or show them any disrespect. But maybe he wasn’t assuming a submissive posture, quickly enough. In any case one of the policemen, Officer Daniel Pantaleo, placed Garner in a chokehold, compressing his windpipe.

It should be pointed out that this maneuver was outlawed by the New York Police Department 20 years ago.

Again there appeared to be no reason for the police to take such an aggressive approach to Eric Garner. It was not warranted by his alleged crime or behavior. The videotape shows Garner complaining repeatedly that he’s having trouble breathing. The police officers wrestle him to the sidewalk and Eric Garner dies. Emergency paramedics are summoned but the police officers, who were present, are clearly shown making no attempt at all to resuscitate Eric Garner.

Again let’s be clear on the facts. The coroner ruled Garner’s death a homicide. He suffered from asthma, and Pantaleo’s chokehold killed him. The Staten Island prosecutor presented evidence against Officer Pantaleo to a grand jury. The other officers involved in the incident were given immunity in exchange for their testimony. But the grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo on any charge.

An American journalist, Eugene Robinson wrote what I consider to be an insightful piece, in the Washington Post, about the tragic death of Eric Garner. He called it a depressing episode in the reality series, No Country For Black Men. In his view, equal justice before the law in the United States is just a cruel joke.

Robinson wrote that African American men are being taught a lesson on how society values, or devalues their lives. He says the Garner case raises two very important issues: One involves what he called the excessive license given to police to do whatever they must to guarantee that the streets are safe. The second, poses the question, has the pendulum now swung too far in the law and order direction at the expense of justice, liberty and equality?

Robinson believes the Garner case is part of what he called the ‘broken windows’ theory of policing. If you want to reduce serious crime, you crack down on minor, nuisance offending like selling loose cigarettes on a street corner. He draws a parallel between the Garner case in New York and the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In both cases, Robinson says, the grand juries examined the evidence and decided there was no probable cause, a very low standard of proof, that the police officers involved did anything wrong. He asks, would the results have been the same if the victims were white?

In yet another twist in the Garner case, the only person to be indicted, who was involved in the Eric Garner killing, was the eyewitness, Ramsay Orta, who recorded the Garner incident on his mobile phone. He faced charges relating to weapons offences after a bust by an undercover policeman. Police allege Orta slipped a handgun into the waistband of a teen accomplice outside a New York hotel. Orta claims he was falsely charged in retaliation for the Garner filming. His case was also examined by a grand jury, which had no trouble at all in indicting him.

I think all of us have an obligation to be extremely careful in playing the race card. It’s easy and convenient and can be used to either confuse or silence justified criticism especially when there are two sides to every story. But in the case of Michael Brown and Eric Garner it happens to be true. Sadly, the category that defines America’s most feared and loathed citizens would appear to be young, black men. Ironically, Eric Garner didn’t even fit this profile stereotype. He was a middle-aged, overweight asthmatic man. He was engaged in an activity that warranted nothing more than being told to move along.

I hate to say it, but in my view, his capital offense, in the minds of those police officers who confronted him, was to be born black.

Has The Truth Been Told In Ferguson?

What is the truth? That’s a question they are asking in Ferguson Missouri. And it’s a question probably being asked across the continental United States.

What is the truth in the shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown? Is the truth the finding of the Grand Jury that the policeman who shot him dead should not face criminal charges for his actions?

Or is the truth something else entirely?

An unarmed black man willfully shot dead by a white police officer. It was never disputed that the policeman killed Michael Brown. The question has always been was lethal force justified in this case?

As we search for that elusive commodity, the truth, here are the events, outlined by St Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch, played out on that fateful day in August this year.

It might be the best place to start our investigation.

It’s 11.45 am and white Police Officer Darren Wilson responds to a call about a two month old baby struggling to breathe. He clears the job, after paramedics arrive but hears on his police radio about a snatch and grab robbery.

Two young black men, one wearing a red hat, khaki shorts and yellow socks have robbed a local market of some cigarillo cigars. Wilson will tell the Grand Jury he had no intention of answering the radio call concerning the robbery, but he randomly encounters Michael Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson walking down the middle of a street.

Officer Wilson is driving a police SUV. As he reaches the pair, he tells them to move to the sidewalk. Words are exchanged but the pair continues to walk down the middle of the road. Wilson notices that one of the young men, Michael Brown, is wearing clothing that matches the earlier police description of one of the robbery suspects. He also sees that Brown has cigarellos in one of his hands.

Wilson radios for backup.

He immediately reverses his vehicle at an angle, blocking Brown and Johnson’s path as well as incoming traffic from both directions.

According to Prosecutor McCulloch, many witnesses reported seeing an altercation, a wrestling tug of war, going on between Brown who is standing next to the drivers side window of the police SUV and Officer Wilson seated inside.

What happened next, witnesses disagree on. Some said Brown punched Wilson, others said Brown was partially inside the police vehicle via the driver’s window, or that Officer Wilson fired at Brown from inside the police vehicle. We do know Officer Wilson had redness and swelling on one side of his face.

Three post mortems were conducted on the body of Michael Brown. All of the pathologists agreed on the location and number of gunshot wounds on the body. The autopsy results show that Michael Brown was definitely shot once during that altercation at the police SUV.

A total of two bullets were fired from inside the police SUV. One bullet struck the door armrest and the other was never found. One of the shots struck Michael Brown causing an injury to his right thumb. The autopsy confirmed gunshot soot in the wound so it was fired at close range during the altercation. Brown’s blood/DNA was found in the car, on the outside of the driver’s side door, on the left rear door and on Officer Wilson’s clothing and gun.

Almost all of the witnesses agree on one point. Brown hesitates, after the shots were fired inside the SUV, then flees from the scene, running in an easterly direction.

Officer Wilson, gets out of his police SUV with his weapon in hand and begins chasing Brown.

Some witnesses reported seeing Officer Wilson firing at Michael Brown as he ran. If he did, none of the bullets hit Brown from behind as a number of witnesses had claimed.

In any case it is not relevant to the case or what happened next.

Brown is running in an easterly direction and he stops at a street corner, turning towards Officer Wilson, facing west.

Brown begins moving in a westerly direction towards Wilson.

Again there are conflicting eyewitness reports. Some witnesses said Brown didn’t move towards Wilson at all but remained stationary with his hands raised. Other witnesses said he didn’t raise his hands, or raised them just briefly or held onto his stomach. Others said he stumbled towards Wilson or moved quickly or charged.

What is remarkable, even though a group of people will all look at the same thing, at the same time, they can come to completely different conclusions about what they saw.

Which brings us to the fatal shooting itself.

Some witnesses said Officer Wilson opened fire and only stopped shooting when Brown stopped moving towards him. He resumed firing when Brown began moving towards him again. The sounds of the shots were captured by someone video chatting in a nearby apartment. The sounds indicated two set of shots interrupted by a gap in the middle. Officer Wilson fired several more shots, one of which was fatal. Three bullets hit Michael Brown when he was either falling or bent at the waist. One of those bullets entered the top of his head, killing him.

Michael Brown’s blood was found 25 feet east of where his body lay which would indicate that he travelled that distance in Officer Wilson’s direction. Both he and Wilson ended up about 153 feet from the police SUV.

In testimony to the Grand Jury, Officer Wilson said he was carrying lethal force in the form of a Sig Sauer point four zero caliber pistol, with 13 rounds, 12 in the magazine and one round in the chamber. He was also carrying two extra bullet magazines on his belt. Officer Wilson did not have a Taser, but he was carrying non-lethal force in the form of a telescopic police baton and OC spray or Mace.

Ok.

Let’s just step back a little, take a deep breath and examine what has been said here.

Wilson encounters two young black men initially doing what amounts to civil disobedience, walking in the middle of the road. It is reckless and potentially dangerous. He has warned Brown and Johnson but they ignore his warning telling him that they are nearly at their destination. According to the Wilson Grand Jury testimony, Brown let’s fly with some expletives. It is disrespectful to Wilson but hardly a capital crime.

Then Officer Wilson notices what Brown is wearing. It matches a description he has just heard on the police radio. But again we are talking about a petty crime. There is no suggestion in the police radio dispatch that Brown was armed when he stole the cigarellos or that he threatened anyone. It was a crime of opportunity. Brown grabbed the cigarellos from the store and ran away without paying for them.

Then Officer Wilson does something I find totally inexplicable. He radios for backup.

Why?

Backup is something a policeman does if he is going into a dangerous situation where he is outnumbered and he might need extra police resources to bring the situation under control.

But where is the threat?

I can’t see it.

Unfortunately Officer Wilson, was never asked why he called for backup when he appeared before the Grand Jury.

Backup suggests that Officer Wilson is expecting a confrontation.

But why would he?

Brown and Johnson are shoplifters. Petty thieves. They need to be apprehended but they are not dangerous. No violence was used in their crime. No threats were made.

Clearly if Officer Wilson thought the situation needed backup, he doesn’t wait for it to arrive. He decides to confront Brown and Johnson directly.

The forensic evidence discloses that a fight ensues between Wilson in the driver’s seat, inside the vehicle and Brown outside positioned next to the driver’s side window.

Wilson tells the Grand Jury that  during the fight he draws his weapon and points it at Brown who responds by trying to grab it. Another struggle ensues and two shots are fired one of them hitting Brown in the right thumb. Brown responds by fleeing from the scene.

Ok. Let’s pause again.

Wilson says Brown was physically bigger than him, threatening and intimidating. He said the nature of the fight meant he did not have the opportunity to use his police baton or his mace.

Even if what he is saying is true, and let’s accept that it is, what happens next is not so easily explained.

Brown flees with Wilson in pursuit. Armed with his police issue pistol.

I can understand that Officer Wilson would be pretty shaken up at this point.

The evidence shows he has been punched in the side of the face, there has been a struggle over his gun. Two bullets have been fired and the 18-year-old Brown has been shot in the thumb.

But I would have thought Officer Wilson’s training would kick in here. Being cool and calm, not confronting aggression with aggression.

At this point, he has already called for backup, which is only minutes away from arriving. He doesn’t need to pursue Brown. He can wait for more police to arrive and they can pretty easily arrest the young man.

But Officer Wilson doesn’t do any of those things.

He doesn’t arm himself with the non-lethal options he is carrying.

Clearly, his weapon of choice, the only weapon he is intent on using, is his police issue firearm. He has lethal force. He is the man with all of the power here.

Brown only has his fists. But only one fist is working properly to be perfectly accurate. Let’s not forget he has been shot in the thumb, which would have been both painful and incapacitating. Even if Michael Brown had two fists working perfectly he would be no match for someone armed with a gun.

Michael Brown is shot again and again and again. Officer Wilson says Brown kept coming at him giving him little choice but to keep shooting. The fatal shot being delivered when Brown is bent at the waist almost certainly as a result of being shot multiple times.

By the time the fatal shot was delivered, Officer Wilson’s intentions were very clearly to kill Michael Brown.

So of course that brings us back to the original question: was lethal force justified?

This is my take on the answer.

Officer Wilson had a confrontational mindset from the very start. His intention was to deal aggressively with Michael Brown from the very moment he confirmed that he was the suspect in the market robbery.

The problem with aggression is that it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Aggression only leads to more aggression.

But i would like to know what has happened to the concept of using lethal force only as an absolute last resort and only when you you have no other choice and you feel your life has been threatened? Officer Wilson had choices other than using lethal force. He did not need to chase Michael Brown while armed with his police issue pistol.

Sometimes the safest and best option is to withdraw from a dangerous situation in the same way police cars pull away from some high speed pursuits.

If police training says the appropriate response, in cases like this, is to use a gun to resolve the confrontation, then they need to have a good look at their training in my view.

Michael Brown committed a crime, and did something really, really stupid in trying to grab Officer Wilson’s gun.

But I think one incredibly stupid action, shouldn’t be followed, fairly closely, by another in my opinion. Especially when it involves a police officer and a gun.

There can only be one outcome. Someone, will end up dead.

I believe Officer Wilson could have waited, should have waited for the backup he had called for.

Did Michael Brown need to die? I’ll be true to myself and say no I don’t think so.

Ferguson’s Shame

There’s been a disturbing development in the case involving an 18-year-old black American shot dead by a policeman in Missouri. This case was the catalyst for days of violent protest in Ferguson, a predominantly black suburb in St Louis. It also resulted in a nationwide debate about the relationship between young black Americans and the police. Two independent witnesses have come forward to give their version of events.

CNN released cell phone footage revealing the reactions of two construction workers who were in the vicinity at the time the incident happened. It is controversial and damning of the police. The footage shows the young black man’s hands were raised before he was killed. It also supports other eyewitness accounts that the 18-year-old was retreating or surrendering. The video shows one of the construction workers raising his hands immediately after the shooting calling out to the police officer that the young man had his hands up. The construction worker said in an interview with CNN that the policeman, didn’t tell the young black man to lie down on the ground, he just kept shooting. The eyewitness heard one gunshot and then another about 30 seconds later. When he saw the young man with a fatal head wound he again called out to the police officer, his hands were in surrender and the police officer did not need to shoot.

This account of course completely contradicts the police version of events. The police version has this officer shooting the young man in self-defense. There was a struggle and the young man attacked the police officer prompting him to draw his weapon and use lethal force. But these two construction workers  were 50 feet away when the cop opened fire. That makes them eyewitnesses to what happened. They said the young black man didn’t confront the police officer. In fact he was running away from the police car. The officer was chasing him and the young man raised his hands in the air. The two construction workers were not locals. They were employed by a business from Jefferson County south of Missouri. The lawyer representing the family of the young man who was shot said these two eyewitnesses came forward of their own account. He also said he thought this new video was a deal breaker in the case. It wasn’t the fact that these construction workers were white and were from out of town. It was a deal breaker because it showed their reactions immediately after what they had just witnessed. It was the best evidence you could have other than a video of the actual shooting.

The St Louis County Prosecutor is saying very little about this new development as you might expect. These two construction workers were among a number of witnesses interviewed by the authorities and they were just part of the ongoing investigation. To put all of this in context, a local Grand Jury is considering all of the evidence being gathered for potential criminal charges against the police officer responsible for shooting the young man. The general consensus amongst the local legal fraternity is that the video will be admissible evidence in any future court case against the police officer.

But the criminal investigation into the shooting is not the only inquiry happening in Ferguson. The White House has begun a Federal investigation into whether the Ferguson police systematically violated the civil rights of people living in the city. Make that black people living in the city. The Department of Justice is also working with the St Louis County force, which was heavily criticized for its militarized response and over reaction to the protests that followed the shooting. In other words the Justice Department thinks the county force needs to reform the way it handles demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience.  Some of the law enforcement statistics strongly suggest there is a real problem with how black people are treated by police in Ferguson. According to figures published by the Missouri Attorney General, the ratio of black motorists stopped by police compared to white motorists is seven to one. Police are 12 times more likely to conduct a search of a black motorist’s car than a white motorist.

What is even more alarming is that 13 percent of Ferguson’s police officers have faced allegations of using excessive force in discharging their duties. This compares extremely unfavorably to the national average, which is half of one percent. One thing is certain. We have not heard the end of this.

Let’s Get Rid Of The R Word

This might not be a shock to many. But it is to me. The United States has an R problem. More specifically, the police have an R problem. I’m talking about Racism. An extremely ugly word that has no place in civilized, educated societies. It clearly is a problem. How big a problem is anyone’s guess but just recently there have been some examples that should make us all feel ashamed.

I’ll come to Ferguson, Missouri but lets begin in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A local cop has quit after he was busted sending text messages to colleagues urging them to “pull a Ferguson and take them out.” He was referring to young Black Americans. That was only the beginning. He also described African-Americans as “monkeys” and told how he “enjoyed arresting them with their sagging pants.”

This policeman patrolled a predominantly Black southern University. You can only begin to imagine the kind of treatment he would have handed out to the students he encountered. This cop has resigned and is now being investigated. He may face criminal charges. One of the local police chiefs in Baton Rouge did say  it was “gut wrenching” to believe that someone possessed that much hate in them especially a police officer who is in the community enforcing the law everyday. He might have added especially a police officer packing lethal force. The Police Chief said the revelation made him sick to his stomach. Bravo.

But unfortunately this has not been, nor will it ever be, an isolated occurrence. There is something rotten to the core in the US of A. In Jonesboro, Arkansas an investigation is continuing after a 21-year-old African-American allegedly shot himself in the head while handcuffed in the back of a police car. He was arrested after police discovered a $10 bag of marijuana in his pocket during a routine traffic stop. A post-mortem is expected to provide more details about the shooting. I don’t want to pre-judge anything. But I would point out that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to shoot yourself in the head when your hands are cuffed behind your back.

Here is what it has come down to in Ferguson Missouri. Police are now wearing body cameras, which include a recording device in an attempt to calm community anger after an 18-year-old man was shot dead by police. This incident sparked a wave of street protests and the predominantly white police in Ferguson, were widely criticized for being heavy-handed and using unnecessary force in dealing with protestors. Two companies donated the body cameras and now patrolling police are wearing them. There is a hope that the cameras will make police more accountable, and allow for greater transparency. It will mean that judges and juries can see video footage and make a deliberation on what happened during an incident that resulted in a complaint against police or in a fatal police shooting.

What makes me sad and despairing is that all of this has become necessary. But the police must act swiftly and decisively to nip this racism thing in the bud. That means either through education or threat of prosecution, dismissal or all three combined. Public confidence is at stake. We can’t function properly as a society if our cops are making judgment calls based on nothing more than a person’s skin type. Quite frankly it isn’t a world any of us wants to live in.

What The Hell Is Going On?

More and more these days things are happening in such a way that makes me keep asking myself the question: What the hell is going on?

Take this as a for instance. The story begins with an 18-year- old unarmed man, gunned down in a Missouri street after a confrontation with police. Two journalists, Huffington Post reporter Ryan J Reilly and Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery sent to cover the story are arrested for their trouble by a SWAT team in McDonald’s of all places.

Of course the reporters were expectedly outraged and tweeted their arrest and even showed video recordings on their mobile devices. So what’s my point? It’s this:

The 18- year- old man who died at police hands was killed in a predominantly black neighbourhood in controversial circumstances. By all reports in a quiet area that rarely sees trouble. The FBI is now investigating what happened after witnesses and police gave conflicting accounts of what led to the death of the young man only a couple of days before he was due to start college.

Now you might think that police having already been involved in controversy might be somewhat circumspect in how they go about things back in this neighbourhood. I am not suggesting they stop upholding the law. What I mean is not doing anything that might inflame the situation and cause more violence.

But it would seem that police in that particular area of Missouri had a very different take on how they should behave. Instead of softly, softly they took what witnesses claim was a very, heavy handed approach in dealing with the crowd that had gathered to conduct a vigil for the dead man. They used tear gas and rubber bullets.

Let’s just park the whys and wherefores of this particular incident for the moment and focus on an equally important issue: What I would describe as the disturbing and menacing images of the police response that are being shown on social media and on TV.

In fact one commentator took up this theme and made a very good point, in my view, by way of a comparison. He said on the one hand, the use, and some might say abuse, of contentious anti-terrorism powers for intelligence agencies has been well documented and heavily debated thanks to Wikileaks, Bradley Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.

But what has quietly slipped through, under the radar, is the fact that United States Governments have been quietly arming their police and turning them into para-militaries.

Critics are now saying that the days of accountable, civilian police held up as a cornerstone of a democratic and free society are long gone and we better get used to it. Instead we now have the rule of the gun. Forget about the presumption of innocence. Your presumed to be armed and dangerous and that’s where it begins and ends. And, the critics say, it’s delivering a blunt message to America’s poor, ethnic and anti-establishment communities: WE are a para-military style police and YOU are the enemy.

So where is the evidence of the re-arming of police? Well let’s just go through a checklist of the kind of gear police carry these days: Assault Rifles, Combat Helmets and Nightime Goggles. They ride around in armoured vehicles that also have grenade launchers. Battle equipped police are smashing down doors with battering rams, throwing stun grenades and smashing through doors and windows as if they are on some kind of military operation. Not the sort of kit or behaviour normally associated with suburban cops.

Of course these developments have the American Civil Liberties Union jumping up and down on the one spot. The ACLU points out that American neighbourhoods are not war zones. Our police officers should not be treating us, the general public, as if we were their enemies. And to make matters worse, the Pentagon is helping. Large quantities of surplus military battle uniforms, protective gear and heavy weapons stockpiled after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were given a new home. Following 9/11 the U.S Department of Homeland Security handed over this equipment to State Police. And as the ACLU also points out, if the Government hands over heavy-duty weapons to State Police they are going to use them even if the situation doesn’t call for that kind of firepower.

Doctor Tom Nolan, the chair of the Department of Criminal Justice at New York State University made the interesting point. He said many communities now view the police as an occupying army. The once close relationships police forged with communities are being smashed by the mindset of what he called the Warrior Cop.

Some lobby groups are claiming that 5000 civilian Americans have been killed at the hands of the new military style police since 9/11. I am not in a position to comment on the validity or otherwise of those statistics. But what I can say is that there are plenty of examples where disproportionate police force was used. Take the case in Arizona where an Iraqi veteran was shot 22 times while sitting in his kitchen. The 7-year-old Detroit girl shot by police after she leapt out of her bed which had been set on fire by police smoke grenades.

Critics say there is also growing evidence that Police Special Weapons and Tactics Squads reserved for the most serious armed confrontations like sieges and armed hostage taking are being used in incidents of a more minor nature. In the 1980s there were fewer than 3000 SWAT raids in the United States. By 2005 that number had exploded to 45,000. What’s worse says New York State University’s Doctor Tom Nolan, people charged with no crime are treated as if they are guilty with the violent intrusion into their home based on the mere suspicion of low-level crime. And the vast majority of these raids are against black Americans and Latinos.

As some commentators point out what is also being observed is that police in the United States are not not only vigorous in upholding the law, they seem to think they are above it. Even the Central Intelligence Agency was taken to task after it was discovered that the CIA had been spying on Congress men and women responsible for monitoring its behaviour.

I should hasten to add that this is not an exercise in police bashing. Most people appreciate and understand the difficult job police do for us every day. But in every healthy democracy there must be checks, balances and accountability. Recently the absurd situation arose where a Massachusetts police SWAT team managed to dodge Freedom of Information requests on its activities by claiming it was a private corporation contracted to multiple police departments and therefore had the right to claim commercial confidentiality.

I accept we live in a changed world. But I share other people’s concerns that this might be counterproductive. That arming the police to the teeth does not do much to reassure the general public that they are safe and out of harm’s way. Instead it reinforces the notion that we are all unsafe and in danger. Maybe from the very people whose sworn duty it is to protect us.