Police wearing riot gear walk toward a man with his hands raised Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. (Photo/Jeff Roberson,AP)
The recent rash of acquittals and refusals to prosecute for police-initiated deaths has triggered national outcry against police brutality in the United States. The Staten Island grand jury’s acquittal of Officer Daniel Pantaleo — the New York police officer who contributed to the death of Eric Garner during an arrest in July — raised serious questions about the relationship between the city’s police and the county’s district attorney offices and the ability of interdependent agencies to monitor each other.
Pantaleo was videotaped placing a chokehold on Garner — a tactic explicitly banned by the New York Police Department in 1993. This is despite the facts that Garner was indicating that he couldn’t breathe at the time, that Garner was unarmed and had no record of violence, and that the offense Garner was being arrested for was selling loose cigarettes on the street — which, under New York state law, qualifies as a misdemeanor for a first offense and a class E felony for repeat offenses. Garner, an asthmatic, died from a heart attack en route to the hospital following the incident.
In the case of the NYPD, the Garner case reflects a troubling trend. Despite the existence of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which requires police agencies to report deaths in police custody to the U.S. Department of Justice, the actual number of such deaths remains unknown, largely due to internal attempts by local and state police agencies to conceal or mitigate such statistics from the public eye. Available information shows that police officers rarely, if ever, are indicted for malicious or excessive uses of force. For example, according to a New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board report, between July 2013 and July 2014, there were 219 complaints about police officers administering chokeholds. This is the highest number of such reports since 2010, when the board reported receiving over 200 chokehold complaints per year from 2006 to 2010.
In the push to find solutions for these seeming “miscarriages of justice,” suggestions toward relieving the situation have included requiring on-duty patrol officers to wear body cameras and increasing cultural sensitivity training. While logic would dictate that allowing police officers an objective view of their own police work would serve both for corrective and constructive criticism purposes, the addition of body cameras cannot offer a remedy to another disturbing trend in policing today. In one of the last comprehensive nationwide reviews of police brutality, ColorLines and the Chicago Reporter investigated fatal police shootings in 10 major cities in 2007. In all of the cities that ColorLines investigated, but particularly New York, San Diego, and Las Vegas, the review found that a disproportionate number of blacks were shot by police.
This trend is further supported by statistics from the NAACP, which showed that in Oakland, California, there were 37 police-related shootings of black individuals between 2004 and 2008. There were no white police shooting victims for the same time period, and 40 percent of all of these shootings involved an unarmed victim. Similarly, the NYPD Firearm Discharge Report found that between 2000 and 2011, more blacks were shot by the NYPD than Hispanics, whites and Asians combined. Yet these shootings continue even though violent crime rates have been on a steady decline nationwide since 1991.
In order to adequately address the issues involved in the rash of minority deaths by cop, one must look beyond the badge. If the officer is only doing his job — as the large number of police acquittals would suggest — what exactly is driving the disparity? Can it be argued that police violence is a societal issue? And if it is, does the nation need to re-examine the way it deals with race? Does this situation suggest a need to complete the civil rights movement?
Making the argument
The murder rates for blacks is four times the national average. While some police-related shootings can be attributed to the higher rate of violent crime in the black community, this rationale does not adequately explain the high rate of unarmed blacks killed by police violence. Thus, many argue that the answer may lie in the culture of “white fear” and how the nation sees communities of color.
It is a prevalent notion that as the white majority in this nation slowly shrinks in size and political influence, a sense of fear for the loss of “white privilege” — the notion that, socioeconomically and politically, being white has advantages over being brown or black — is triggering a pushback and a resurgence of racist sensibilities in the white community.
“Even though whites likely can maintain a disproportionate share of wealth, those numbers will eventually translate into political, economic, and cultural power. And then what?” wrote Robert Jensen for AlterNet. “Many whites fear that the result won’t be a system that is more just, but a system in which white people become the minority and could be treated as whites have long treated non-whites. This is perhaps the deepest fear that lives in the heart of whiteness. It is not really a fear of non-white people. It’s a fear of the depravity that lives in our own hearts: Are non-white people capable of doing to us the barbaric things we have done to them?”
Regardless of one’s views on “white fear” or “white privilege,” it is hard to deny the inherent racism in the U.S. A 2012 Associated Press poll found that 51 percent of all Americans have expressed explicit anti-black attitudes, while 56 percent held implicit racial thoughts or beliefs. The same poll found that 52 percent of Americans had explicit racial attitudes against Hispanics, with 57 percent being implicitly biased.
What this means is that most Americans harbor racist sentiments without being aware of them. A 2013 Rasmussen Reports poll, for example, found that among white respondents, only 10 percent thought that most white Americans are racist, while 38 percent believed that most blacks are racist. While the plurality of black respondents (31 percent) agree that most blacks are racist, 24 percent of black respondents thought that whites are racist, suggesting a more balanced view between the races.
If these findings were to be accepted as fact, that would suggest that the majority of police officers bear racist thoughts and beliefs without being aware of them. In light of standing court decisions that grant police officers the benefit of the doubt regarding procedural decisions, this is problematic, as the perception of the arresting police officer is likely to be biased against the arrestee on prejudicial terms.
In a 2013 Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience paper, “Amygdala Sensitivity to Race Is Not Present in Childhood but Emerges over Adolescence,” researchers found evidence to suggest that racism is not an inherent and native biological function of human psychology, but a learned bias influenced by the people in our environment and, to a lesser degree, our media and social perceptions. Based on this, race is a social construct, and in theory, it is possible to build a society devoid of this concept as a meaningful social delineation.
Many believe that the current outrage concerning police violence cannot be resolved unless the underlying issue of race is addressed. Regardless of the additional training police must undertake or the additional recording equipment they must use, the problem cannot be resolved under the current legal framework unless the officer himself makes the effort to change. It has been said that a police officer who is afraid is not only a danger to himself, but a danger to his community. The way forward may be to find the cause of this fear of black and brown people among the police and address it; anything short of this would perpetuate the cycle of distrust and abuse between the police and the communities of color that has existed since the end of Reconstruction.
“Police violence is no worse now than it has been in the past,” said Norman Pattis, a trial lawyer and author of “Taking Back the Courts,” to MintPress News. “What is extraordinary about the Eric Garner case is the public reaction, which is encouraging toward addressing the issues of socioeconomic inequality in this nation. I am afraid, though, that this opportunity that is presented before us now will be lost if we only focus on the question of police brutality.”
“This nation is steeped in racial violence and racial prejudice, and anyone who thinks differently is living in a dream world.”
Pattis also noted that he doesn’t believe that the Garner case is a case of implicit bias by officers, but one of changing demographics in the country.
“I believe that police violence is the occasion and not the cause of what we are seeing. Focusing on the police violence will only cause this issue to be buried from the front page.”
Fashion and fads
In order to understand the need for such action, a look at how the police functions today is needed. The NYC Civilian Complaint Review Board report, for example, found that the proliferation of chokehold incidences is due in part to the department’s refusal to prosecute rule violations.
“Put simply, during the last decade, the NYPD disciplinary decisions in NYPD administrative trials of chokehold allegations failed to enforce the clear mandate of the Patrol Guide chokehold rule,” the study reads. “In response to these decisions which failed to hold offending officers accountable, the CCRB and NYPD Department Advocate’s Office [internal affairs] failed to charge officers with chokehold violations pursuant to the mandate of the Patrol Guide chokehold rule.”
According to the New York Daily News, from 1999 — when NYPD officers killed an unarmed Amadou Diallo in a hail of bullets — to November of this year, ending with the shooting of Akai Gurley, at least 179 individuals have been killed by the NYPD. Of these 179 cases, only three officers have been indicted, only one has been convicted, and none have served any prison time. Of the individuals who have died, 17 percent were unarmed and 86 percent were black or Hispanic when the race of the individual was known.
Such statistics can easily explain the growing public outcry. In growing numbers, professional athletes, television and movie actors, and other celebrities are joining the “I Can’t Breathe” campaign — named after Garner’s alleged last words — donning black t-shirts inscribed with the rallying cry. With “Black Lives Matter” protests continuing in most major cities, this seems to be an issue that has ensnared the attention and interest of the nation.
Yet there is widespread concern that these protests amount to little more than a passing fad. Without an attempt to address the underlying issues behind the rash of police brutality, there is a growing belief that the current call for change will go unheard.
“The shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland and the evidentiary and procedural concerns regarding the grand jury indictment of New York Officer Daniel Pantaleo is nothing new to Black America,” said Terence Fitzgerald, a professor at the University of Southern California School of Social Work and author of “Black Males and Racism,” to MintPress. “History is riddled with other dreadful incidences that are rooted in systemic racial oppression. They have simply been forgotten about or disregarded.”
Fitzgerald argues that it is only reasonable to expect that the current call for change with the police to be feasible if one forgets the sociopolitical disenfranchisement of the community of color.
“Regardless of the fact that we have a sitting black president, the tragic incidences splattered on the national stage today will continue to occur as long as we as a nation refuse to acknowledge that systemic racism exists. While it is easy to downplay or totally disregard the discussion, the issues will remain,” he said.
Graham v. Connor and “objective reasonableness”
Addressing the question of police brutality requires an understanding of the concept of “objective reasonableness.” In 1989, the Supreme Court was asked the hear the case of Dethrone Graham, a resident of Charlotte, North Carolina. According to the case summary, Graham was driven by his friend to a nearby convenience store in 1989. Graham, a diabetic, sought to buy orange juice to counter the onset of an insulin reaction. Seeing that the checkout line was too long, he quickly left the store to go to his friend’s house.
A patrol officer happened to see Graham enter and leave the store quickly. Suspicious that Graham may have been shoplifting, the officer performed an investigative stop on the car Graham was being driven in. Despite being alerted that Graham was having a “sugar reaction,” the officer ordered Graham and his friend to wait until he could ascertain what happened in the store. The medical crisis forced Graham out of the car, where he eventually sat on the curb and momentarily passed out. Assuming that Graham was drunk, the additional officers that reported to the scene rolled Graham to the sidewalk, roughly handcuffed him and slammed him face-first into the hood of a car. During the incident with the police, Graham suffered a broken foot, cuts to his wrists, an injured shoulder and a bruised forehead, as well as an alleged onset of tinnitus. Graham was driven home and released once the officers realized that no crime occurred.
Graham would go on to sue the officer for violations of his 14th Amendment right to due process. In the decision Graham v. Connor, the Supreme Court ruled that it is not enough to hold police accountable to a single standard of violating due process, as previously defined in the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals case Johnson v. Glick. Instead, the courts must ask whether — from the officers’ perspective at the time of the arrest, and not in hindsight — the actions performed by law enforcement during an arrest or stop were reasonable. In Graham’s case, the fact that the officers thought Graham was drunk was enough justification to treat him as if he was drunk, even though he wasn’t.
Graham v. Connor has made it nearly impossible for an officer to be arrested for actions performed in the line of duty, as it made the officer’s state of mind a considering factor in determining malfeasance. As the prosecutor must — based on the test set in the ruling — prove that the officer acted in malice, such prosecutions are actively avoided, as they would be difficult to argue. The prosecution of such cases is further complicated by the fact that such cases have little to no evidence attached to them.
Some, however, believe that the introduction of technology may help to stop the hearsay that accompanies most police brutality allegations. According to a survey conducted by BrickHouse Security, a security and surveillance consultancy, 72 percent of respondents felt that police officers should be required to wear body cameras; 75 percent felt that an officer would be hiding something if an incident was not recorded on an available body camera; 79 percent felt that the use of body cameras would reduce the use of excessive force; and 81 percent believe that the use of the cameras would reduce accusations.
Recently, President Obama called for increased federal funding to help police departments to pay for body cameras and for sensitivity training. Yet even among those who actively support the implementation of body cameras, there are doubts that the cameras alone can remedy all of the public’s concerns about the police.
“The reality is that even those that do something that looks legal on video but is questionable should face a jury of their peers to test the actual legality of their actions,” said Todd Morris, CEO of Brickhouse Security, to MintPress in regards to the Garner grand jury decision.
“The fact that this is not happening is a problem. Until there is a way to present police interactions and shed light on these incidents in an incontrovertible way, it will be hard to get the police to change the way it polices itself.”