IF THE definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then what are we to make of the US criminal justice system?
Just days after a grand jury failed to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo over the banned chokehold death of Eric Garner, weeks after a grand jury failed to indict Missouri officer Darren Wilson over the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, and months after a grand jury failed to indict Ohio officer Sean Williams for the fatal Walmart shooting of John Crawford, Brooklyn district attorney Ken Thompson last week announced he plans to impanel yet another grand jury to look at the death of Akai Gurley. He was shot when rookie NYPD officer Peter Liang “accidentally” fired his gun in a darkened stairwell in Brooklyn in November.
Ignoring allegations that the grand jury system is broken and calls for a special prosecutor to be appointed, Thompson promised “a fair and full” investigation and to pass on all the necessary information. But given everything that has happened since July, how can the process be regarded as anything more than going through the motions?
If the footage of Garner gasping “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe” as his head is forced to the ground wasn’t enough to convince a grand jury he was unlawfully killed, then what hope is there of justice for Gurley, whose death went unrecorded? Or for 12-year-old Tamir Rice, shot dead by Cleveland officer Timothy Loehmann, while messing about in a park with a toy gun?
If the election of its first black president convinced anyone that the worst of America’s race problems were over, then these killings – committed with impunity – must surely have ripped the blinkers from their eyes. Six years after Barack Obama came to power, white officers across the US are taking pot shots at poor black men, one after the other, like tin cans on a fencepost, with the state and the president apparently powerless to stop them.
The disregard they exhibit towards their targets extends beyond their use of excessive violence to their casual disregard for their fate. In footage taken after Rice’s shooting and Garner’s loss of consciousness, officers involved mill about instead of giving the victims first aid and some papers reported Loehmann called his union rep before the emergency services.
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The number of African Americans shot by police (and it is mostly African Americans, although poor and mentally ill people of other ethnicities are also involved) has exposed the extent to which discrimination is still present in US society. Many of its law enforcement agencies are institutionally racist. The stop and frisk practices of the NYPD endorsed by former mayor Michael Bloomberg, but greatly reduced by new mayor Bill de Blasio, raised concerns after it emerged more than 80 per cent of those targeted were black or Latino. But this is not a problem confined to New York or the police, as the shooting of Trayvon Martin by Neighbourhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman demonstrated. It infects every corner of the US and having a black president – portrayed by his enemies as white-hating – has, if anything, made matters, worse.
Now, finally, and way too late, Obama has taken action over the deaths, setting up a task force to look into police tactics. But nothing he has done or said seems close to adequate. Indeed, his investment in the increased use of police cameras is embarrassing, given the footage of the deaths of Crawford and Garner did nothing to further their families’ cause.
A more useful intervention would be to force state and federal law enforcement agencies to be more transparent. One of the most shocking things to emerge from this spate of deaths is that there are no reliable national statistics on the number of people fatally shot (or otherwise killed) by US police, although estimates by journalists suggest it could be as high as 1,000 a year. According to the Washington Post, however, of the 400 “justifiable homicides” recorded every year, an average of 96 involve a white officer killing a black person.
For two years, journalist D Brian Burghart has been trying to compile a comprehensive database, although he says he has been thwarted at every turn. He concludes those in authority do not want the figures in the public domain, but, he points out, if you don’t have any idea of the scale of the problem it is impossible to address it. Without knowing how many victims were unarmed, how many were black, Latino or other ethnicity, how different states compare – how can you clamp down on bad practice or foster good practice. And how can you hold anyone accountable?
It is true Obama has found himself in a difficult position on race issues; on the rare occasion he has spoken out – such as when he came to the defence of black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, arrested while trying to gain access to his own home – his judgment has been questioned.
But it isn’t enough – now – for Obama to indulge in easy rhetoric and quick fixes. Most pressingly, he needs to acknowledge the gravity of the situation and the validity of people’s anger. So long as he tries to pass the problem off as a “simmering distrust” between black communities and police as opposed to an entrenched racism which runs through every layer of US society, then the number of shootings and the social unrest will just keep on growing.
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