Research Suggests Why Grand Juries Fail to Indict

Man holding sign with Tamir Rice picture

(image source)

Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy, playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park, was shot and killed by police called to the scene by a neighbor. On Monday, a grand jury failed to indict the cops who killed Rice. The failure to indict anyone in the murder of a child is sickening, but not in any way surprising. The non-indictment of these Cleveland cops responsible for Rice’s murder stands in a long and depressing list of recent failures to indict: in the death of Eric Garner, in the death of Sandra Bland, in the death of Michael Brown.

Someone unfamiliar with the U.S. judicial system might glance at this string of failed indictments and imagine that it’s fairly common for grand juries to not bring indictments. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Grand juries almost always indict every case brought before them by a prosecutor. So why this succession of failed indictments?

There is a ton of research that suggests some explanations.

  • Police & Prosecutorial Dominance. “The house always wins,” and in police-involved shootings, the “house” is the police. Even in the rare cases when officers are indicted for shootings, such as in the killing of Amadou Diallo, the indicted officers are likely to be acquitted, restored to their jobs, and later promoted. This police and prosecutorial dominance is not merely a case of closing ranks behind a blue wall of silence, but part of the larger fabric of the systemic racism known as the New Jim Crow. The dominance of police and prosecutors is now, over the last 30 years, become part of the legislative and judicial system, as Michelle Alexander has detailed in her work.

michelle alexander - new jim crow book cover

(Michelle Alexander, author of New Jim Crow)

  • White Dominance of Police Departments. Throughout the U.S., police departments tend to be whiter than the general population. For example, Maple Heights, the neighborhood in Cleveland where Tamir Rice lived, went from being mostly white to nearly two-thirds black in the last few decades. But the police force there remains predominantly white, despite a 1977 affirmative action deal in which the city agreed to hire more people of color. Overall, in the U.S. the percentage of whites on a police force is more than 30 percentage points higher than in the communities they serve, according to an analysis by the NYTimes drawn from a government survey of police departments.

 

  • Whites’ Anti-Black Views Shape Policing. The perspectives of whites, as policy makers, police and as plain citizens who call 911 on a neighborhood boy playing in a nearby park as a cause for concern, shape the way policing is done in the U.S. Nearly half of whites believe “many” or “almost all” black men are violent. Whites overestimate the amount of crime, in particular violent crime, involving blacks.

graph - whites overestimate black part in crime

(image source)

 

When describing the events surrounding the killing of Tamir Rice, the prosecutor described a “perfect storm of human error.” It seems that the right to be a human being, is not one that Tamir Rice, or Sandra Bland, or Eric Garner, or Amadou Diallo will get.

Police-Involved Killings Continue with No End in Sight

Police-involved killings in the U.S. continue with no end in sight. Today, the Madison, Wisconsin D.A. Ismael Ozanne announced that there will be no charges brought against the white police officer for shooting and killing 19-year-old Tony Robinson Jr. on March 6. With that murder, and the announcement of no indictment, Tony Robinson’s names gets added to the long and growing list of names-turned-hashtags for young black and brown people killed by police where there is no justice in the wake of their death, and likely no peace in Madison.

 

Tony Robinson, Jr.

Tony Robinson, Jr. Source: CNN

Comprehensive data on rate of death for police-involved killings is difficult to come by because no federal agency is tasked with collecting it in any systematic way. Even the FBI failed to count at least half the number of people killed by state and local law enforcement officers in the past decade, according to a government report released in March. In the wake of such a failure of basic data collection, citizen and activist groups have started compiling their own statistics through crime and media reports. One of the most comprehensive projects to date is a website called Killed By Police. The site logged nearly 1,500 police-involved deaths between January 1, 2014 and April 30, 2015 and included documentation for each incident.

And, this is what the aggregation of those deaths look like over 16 months

 

Tracking Police Killings Nationwide

Tracking Police Killings Nationwide Source: http://killedbypolice.net

 

If this were the spread of an infectious disease, the CDC and public health officials around the nation would be scrambling to find a solution. Yet, as it is, this use of deadly force by police against black and brown people continues virtually unchecked by any individual or institution. It has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the world, however.

Protest sign: Stop Racist Police Brutality

Stop Racist Police Brutality Source: PBS Newshour

Yesterday, the United Nations’ Human Rights Council slammed the U.S. over our abysmal human rights record. Among the human rights abuses that the U.N. called attention to were police violence and racial discrimination, the Guantánamo Bay Detention Facility, pervasive surveillance and the continued use of the death penalty. But it was the issue of racism and police brutality that dominated the discussion during the second universal periodic review (UPR). Country after country recommended that the U.S. strengthen legislation and expand training to eliminate racism and excessive use of force by law enforcement.

Last month, Chris Rock made news after he started documenting the number of times he’s been pulled over by the police and posting the photos on Twitter. Rock didn’t state the reasons as to why he was being pulled over, but people assumed that he was making a point about being racially profiled. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Rock discussed being profiled and the recent uprising in Baltimore.

“It’s not that it’s gotten worse; it’s just that it’s part of the 24-hour news cycle. What’s weird is that it never happens to white kids. There’s no evidence that white youngsters are any less belligerent, you know? We can go to any Wall Street bar and they are way bigger a–holes than in any other black bar. But will I see cops stop shooting black kids in my lifetime? Probably not,” Rock said.

I hope Chris Rock is wrong, but it doesn’t look like he is today.

 

Ferguson: No Indictment in Shooting of Michael Brown

On August 9, Ferguson Missouri officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed, African American teenager. Brown’s dead body was left in the street for four and a half hours, baking on that hot summer asphalt. On August 25, Michael Brown’s parents buried their son, a young man who had been college-bound at the time he was gunned down. Tonight – 108 days later – Missouri prosecutor Robert McCulloch chose not to indict Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown, citing a lack of physical evidence and “conflicting eyewitness accounts” in the case. In a long, sometime rambling public statement, McCulloch blamed “social media” and the “24-hour news cycle”  as “challenges” in coming to a verdict in the case.

parents of michael brown hold a photo of the slain teen

(image source)

If you have not been following the case of Michael Brown, his death joins a long lineage of young, black and brown men (and women and trans people) killed by white supremacist violence. Since his death in August, many have been placing Michael Brown alongside Emmett Till, as part of a tragic legacy. And, this legacy is only getting worse through legitimation. Whereas Emmett Till, and so many other lynched, were killed by extrajudicial means – as Ida B. Wells found – the killing of Michael Brown is intrajudicial – it is within the law. Sanctioned. Blessed, even, by the prosecutor as a “tragedy” which we can learn to “profit from” in a “productive way.”

The fact is that there is no reason that the U.S. has to have so many deaths each year of its citizens at the hands of police. It’s simply not required. Other western, industrialized nations organize themselves differently, do policing differently, and have radically fewer police-induced-deaths than we do here in the US.

police shootinss by country

(Image source)

These deaths at the hands of police, primarily of young black and brown men, is a choice. And, we can make a different choice.

Shortly after the press conference by McCulloch in Missouri, President Obama made a statement from the White House about the events in Ferguson. He began his remarks by emphasizing the “rule of law” and highlighting the need for “peace” and the importance of protecting “property.” As he began speaking, police in Ferguson began deploying teargas, resulting in a telling split screen of the President and the protests.

SplitScreen

(Image source)

On the same day that President Obama offered this tepid, muted and halfhearted support for the people of Ferguson, Missouri he also awarded civil rights heroes Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner the (posthumous) Medal of Freedom honor.

Even as the prosecutor refused to indict Wilson and the President of the US moved to mollify collective outrage at the shooting, protestors were in the streets.

Dasha, 29, arrested in Ferguson

(Image source)

Such protests speak to the deep rage at the continued injustice of the routine killings of young black people on the streets of the U.S.

The events in Ferguson puts me in mind of this quote from a speech from an earlier movement for social justice:

“[There comes] a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.”

I want to know: where do I go to put my body upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus to make the destruction of black bodies stop?

Because I am ready.

This must end.

 

Police Privilege and Conflict with Diversity Initiatives

On October 01, 2010 Sam Houston State University (SHSU) student Aman Abdulaziz  was stopped by campus police for a parking violation that quickly escalated into a police brutality incident as shown in the officer’s dash cam (and in the image below).

 

(Aman Abdulaziz image from here.
Used with permission from Isiah Carey of Fox 26 News, Houston)

Abdulaziz is battling the charges against him and suing SHSU for civil rights violations and failure to train its officers properly. Below, students from Sam Houston State University react and offer their analysis.

As a structural phenomenon resulting from racism and other biases deeply engrained  in U.S. society, we connect this incident with the larger national racialized landscape as a social issue focused on the following questions, 1: Whose interest’s does law enforcement and security serve ? And 2: Is law enforcement and security as it currently operates in everyday operations qualified to work with diverse populations and adequately serve and protect all people? Continue reading…

Visible Evidence of Racism

With the passing of Rodney King (which I talked about yesterday), there’s a collective sense that video has changed everything in the digital era when it comes to racism. Now, the saying goes, the whole world is (really) watching and that changes everything. And yet, it’s the video footage that helped acquit the white officers that assaulted Rodney King. How is that possible?

There are clue to the answers to this question in the scholarship that emerged shortly after the videographic evidence of the brutal, racist beating of Rodney King.  Most notable here in the scholarly literature is the anthology Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising  (Routledge, 1993) edited by Robert Gooding-Williams, Surprisingly, none of the eulogies and elegies to King (even the ones by academics) have mentioned this volume by Gooding-Williams.  It was a remarkable volume at the time it appeared, so close after the uprisings following the verdicts, and it still holds up some 20 years later.

 

 

The lead essay in the volume, written by Judith Butler,  speaks directly to the use of the video – seemingly visible evidence of racism – and the way it was used to acquit the white LAPD offocers. In her chapter called “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia,” Butler writes that while she can write  “…without hesitation,” that ‘the “video shows a man being brutally beaten,” yet, it appears that the (predominantly white) jury in Simi Valley claimed that “what they ‘saw’ was a body threatening police, and saw in those blows the reasonable actions of police officers in self-defense.”

Butler goes on to offer this observation:

“The visual representation of the black male body being beaten on the street by the policemen and their batons was taken up by the racist interpretive framework to construe King as the agent of violence, one whose agency is phantasmatically implied as the narrative precedent and antecedent to the frames that are shown.  Watching King, the white paranoiac forms a sequences of narrative intelligibility that consolidates the racist figure of the black man: ‘He had threatened them, and now he is being justifiably restrained.”  “If they cease hitting him, he will release his violence and now is being justifiably restrained.” King’s palm turned away from his body, held above his own head, is read not as self-protection but as the incipient moments of a physical threat.”

She then turns to Franz Fanon’s exclamation, “Look, a Negro!” to explore the theoretical understanding of the black male body in contemporary popular culture, where the “Look” is a racist indicative that indicates a body regarded as inherently dangerous.  Butler notes that “seeing” with regard to King (the night he was beaten) and “seeing” the video are highly problematic notions infused with racism.  She goes on to say:

“The kind of ‘seeing’ that the police enacted, and the kind of ‘seeing’ that the jury enacted, is one in which a further violence is performed by the disavowal and projection of that violent beating. The actual blows against Rodney King are understood to be fair recompense, indeed, defenses against, the dangers that are ‘seen’ to emanate from his body.  Here ‘seeing’ and attributing are indissoluble. Attributing violent to the object of violence is part of the very mechanism that recapitulates violence, and that makes the jury’s ‘seeing’ into a complicity with that police violence.”

So, what Butler is saying here is that even when it seems that we have incontrovertible visible evidence of racism, the “seeing” of that evidence is contested in various ways.  To be more precise, Butler argues that it is the “white paranoia” that pervades contemporary US culture which made it possible to “see” the defense gestures of Rodney King – as he lay being beaten – as evidence of his threat to whiteness.

As we mark some 20 years since the Rodney King beating, acquittal of the LAPD officers in Simi Valley and the uprisings in Los Angeles that followed, it may be comforting to think that digital cameras are more ubiquitous now than they were in 1992.

Yet, to assume that digital video cameras alone (or, the digital cameras in smart phones), are going to address the plague of police violence and brutality is at best naive.

Deadly Consequences of White Racism in Death of Black Cop

I was downtown today and crossed paths with Police Commissioner Ray Kelly leaving City Hall.  I can only hope that he was there because he was being held accountable for the deadly consequences of white racism by the New York City Police Department.  In the most recent example of this, a white cop shot and killed an off-duty black cop he assumed was a criminal.

The off-dalg_edwards_familyuty and out-of-uniform man who was killed was Omar Edwards, pictured here with his wife and two small children (photo from NYDaily News).

Edwards had seen someone – an actual criminal – breaking into a car and decided to pursue him, even though he was off duty.  The suspect breaking into the car started to run away and Edward chased him with his gun drawn.   It was at this point that a white cop, later identified as Andrew Dutton, saw Edwards, yelled “Police! Stop!” and when Edwards turned with his gun still drawn, Dutton shot and killed him.

The local news here is filled with reports about this story, as it should be.   Unfortunately, the reporting on the story mostly obfuscates what happened rather than illuminates it.   The incident is being called variously: “friendly fire” and a case of “mistaken identity” by the mainstream press.   What this leaves out is the crucial fact of race.

Why did Dutton assume that Edwards was a suspect?    The plain fact of it is because Edwards was a black man and that Dutton interpreted that to mean that Edwards was, therfore, a suspect.      In New York City, racism is a persistent reality of urban life.   What that means for the city’s black and brown men is that they are much more likely to be targeted by police for “frisking,” arrest, or assault. Within this context, hard-working black men like Mr. Edwards often rely on uniforms, whether as police, bus drivers or the ‘uniform’ of a college student,  to protect them from this nearly constant onslaught from police.    Without his police uniform, Mr. Edwards looked like just another suspect in E. Harlem to Mr. Dutton.

Surely, part of this tragedy – and it certainly is a terrible tragedy – is Mr. Dutton’s inability to see beyond the white racial frame that blinded him to the possibility that Mr. Edwards might be something other than a suspect.

Don’t get me wrong.   I’m not accusing Mr. Dutton of being any more racist than any other white cop; what I am saying is that Mr. Dutton’s worldview was shaped by his experience and racial background in such a way that it predisposed him to assume that Edwards was a suspect rather than a fellow officer.    Details are coming out now about Mr. Dutton’s life, and one of these is that he lives in the predominantly white suburban Long Island.   Choosing to live in a white suburb while policing a predominantly non-white city doesn’t necessarily make one more racist, but it does little to challenge the predominant white racial frame.  Perhaps if, as community activists have long argued, Mr. Dutton were required to live in the city he might have known Mr. Edwards, or at the very least, hesistated before he made a deadly assumption he did.

This case is more than merely “mistaken identity” on the part of Mr. Dutton, but rather it is part of systemic racism that black police officers face again and again.  As one unnamed source quote in the NYDaily News says:

“This is always a black cop’s fear, that he’d be mistaken for a [suspect],” a source said.

What this source is saying is that he recognizes that if a case of “mistaken identity” happens, it’s going to happen in only one direction.  That is, it’s going to be a black cop that’s shot because he was thought to be a suspect.  This is not routinely happening to white cops.    As Kai Wright at The Root notes, this is part of a consistent with a larger pattern:

This is a pattern for NYPD’s confrontations with black men: Massive, lethal overreactions that turn difficult situations into disastrous ones. And it’s a pattern for police violence against black men nationally. They get scared; we get killed.

It’s (long past) time for this to end.  Mayor Bloomberg should hold Commissioner Kelly responsible for the actions of officers on the NYPD. And, even more than that, we need to challenge the white racial frame and the deadly consequences of white racism.

Another Picture of the Criminal Justice System

Recently on this blog, there were a number of heated exchanges over the Oscar Grant shooting. Many of the comments reiterated some of the basest stereotypes and misinformation about blacks’ “natural” proclivities for criminal behavior, and bandied about misleading or simply inaccurate statistics as proof. Quite a few posters, and undoubtedly many Americans at large, seem to be of the general opinion that black people are criminally inclined and thus their overrepresentation in the criminal justice system represents their disproportionate predisposition to commit illegal acts.
This disturbing story offers information that should cause people to rethink these knee-jerk assumptions that incarceration = criminality. This news alert describes a case of corrupt judges in Pennsylvania who received kickbacks from for-profit prison companies after sentencing children:

“As many as 5,000 children in Pennsylvania have been found guilty, and up to 2,000 of them jailed, by two corrupt judges who received kickbacks from the builders and owners of private prison facilities that benefited. The two judges pleaded guilty in a stunning case of greed and corruption that is still unfolding. Judges Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. and Michael T. Conahan received $2.6 million in kickbacks while imprisoning children who often had no access to a lawyer. The case offers an extraordinary glimpse into the shameful private prison industry that is flourishing in the United States.”

The report asserts that the two judges pleaded guilty to tax evasion and wire fraud, and that they regularly sentenced children on innocuous cases after violating their rights to due process, and ignoring prosecutors’ recommendations for leniency. One story describes a fourteen year old girl who was sentenced to nearly a year for slapping another girl after an argument escalated and the other girl hit her, and another girl discusses being sentenced to three months in a criminal facility after posting a web page that mocked an assistant principal at her school. Predictably, imprisonment has had a profoundly detrimental effect on these children. One states:

“People looked at me different when I came out, thought I was a bad person, because I was gone for so long. My family started splitting up … because I was away and got locked up. I’m still struggling in school, because the schooling system in facilities like these places [are] just horrible.”

She began cutting herself, blaming the medication that she was forced to take:

“I was never depressed, I was never put on meds before. I went there, and they just started putting meds on me, and I didn’t even know what they were. They said if I didn’t take them, I wasn’t following my program.”

She was hospitalized three times.   The experience of this child is not an isolated incident.  Children who are locked up are at risk for brutal violence at the hands of police, as in this assault of a teenaged girl by sheriff’s deputies in King County, Washington reveals:

The deputy in this case has plead not guilty. The judges who were found guilty of violating the constitutional rights of and illegally sentencing up to 5,000 children for profit, these judges will serve a mere seven years.

While the report on the illegal sentencing case doesn’t mention the racial identity of the two girls who are described above, nor any of the others affected by these judges, the video from King County, Washington reminds us that those involved in the prison system in this country are disproportionately people of color. So it might not be a stretch to question how many of the 5,000 children affected by these judges are black or Latino. This story should at least compel us to rethink naïve assumptions that our criminal justice system is fair, balanced, and impartial, and to consider the implications of this when a disproportionate number of black and brown men are imprisoned. And while we’re at it, we might also consider why this story hasn’t (to my knowledge) received major national news coverage?

Racist Murder of Oscar Grant: An Update

Sign CloseupThe BART cop, Johannes Mehserle, who shot and killed an unarmed Oscar Grant in Oakland on New Year’s Day, has been arrested and charged with murder.   This is a rather stunning turn of events given the way that police brutality is usually ignored here in the U.S., as Joe noted in his recent post about the incident in Houston, Texas and the pervasiveness of police brutality encountered by emergency room physicians.  As I said in the original post about this story, and as the voluminous comments attacking Oscar Grant revealed, the current system of policing is premised on institutional racism in which some citizens are treated as ontological suspects, that is, they are presumed to be guilty of some crime based solely on who they are, particularly young black and brown men. Although some may dismiss Oscar Grant’s murder as merely a tragic accident, the fact is that his death has everything to do with his race, and the fact that this made him automatically “suspect” in the eyes of police.

The racist murder of Oscar Grant is less to do with the individual bigotry of Mehserle and everything to do with the systemic racism of policing in the U.S.  The racially discriminatory practices of a different California police department, Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), was the subject of an extensive study by Yale University legal scholar, Ian Ayers, in 2008.   Ayers summarized his research this way:

The study, which I wrote with my research assistant, Jonathan Borowsky, asked not simply whether African Americans and Latinos are stopped and searched by the LAPD more often than whites — it’s clear that they are — but the more complex question of whether these racial disparities are justified by legitimate policing practices, such as deciding to police more aggressively in high-crime neighborhoods.

We found persistent and statistically significant racial disparities in policing that raise grave concerns that African Americans and Latinos in Los Angeles are, as we put it in the report, “over-stopped, over-frisked, over-searched and over-arrested.” [emphasis added]   After controlling for violent crime rates and property crime rates in specific neighborhoods, as well as a host of other variables, we found the following:

  • For every 10,000 residents, about 3,400 more black people are stopped than whites, and 360 more Latinos are stopped than whites. Stopped blacks are 127% more likely to be frisked — and stopped Latinos are 43% more likely to be frisked — than stopped whites.
  • Stopped blacks are 76% more likely to be searched, and stopped Latinos are 16% more likely to be searched than stopped whites.
  • Stopped blacks are 29% more likely to be arrested, and stopped Latinos are 32% more likely to be arrested than stopped whites.

Perhaps in addition to “over-stopped, over-frisked, over-searched, and over-arrested,” we could add “over-killed.”   The study, released in fall of 2008, initially drew only silence from the LAPD which refused to respond.   And, when they did finally respond (just in the last several days), the LAPD chose to reject the reports findings, minimize the significance of the report, and deny the implications for reviewing its policing practices, by saying only “we live in an imperfect world” (according to Police Chief William J. Bratton).

This notion of an “imperfect world” suggests that the routine brtuality visited upon black and brown people by cops is some sort of unfortunate law of nature that it is impossible to reverse.    Nothing could be further from the truth.  This is a human-created system of inequality and it is well within the realm of the possible that human beings could dismantle this brutal, racially discriminatory regime of policing.   What we lack is the collective will to make it happen.    And, until we summon that will, many more Oscar Grants will be over-stopped, over-frisked, over-searched, over-arrested, and “over-killed.”

It’s my hope that the street protests in Oakland (Creative Commons License photo credit: NeitherFanboy ) will be part of a broader and more sustained effort to address the racial profiling and police brutality that are endemic in the contemporary U.S.