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“Official Reports Usually Side With Police Officers”: Sorry, But It’s Going To Take A Hell Of A Lot More Than An “Official Report”

One day in April of 1880, a cadet named Johnson Whittaker was found unconscious in his room at West Point.

Whittaker, who was African American, had been gagged and beaten, tied to his bed and slashed on the face and hands. He said three white cadets had assaulted him. West Point investigated. Its official conclusion was that Whittaker did these things to himself.

He didn’t, should that need saying, but I offer the story by way of framing a reply to some readers. They wanted my response to news that outside investigators have concluded a Cleveland police officer acted responsibly last year when he shot and killed Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black kid who had been playing with a toy gun. Specifically, the local DA released two separate reports Saturday from two experts on police use of force. Both said Officer Timothy Loehmann’s decision to open fire on the boy was reasonable.

As one reader put it: “What say you???”

I say a few things, actually. In the first place, I say this is not an exoneration. That question is still up to the grand jury, though it’s fair to suspect these reports might be a means of preparing the ground for a similar finding from that panel.

In the second place, I say these reports sought to answer a relatively narrow question: Was Loehmann justified in shooting once the police car had skidded to a stop within a few feet of the boy? They left aside the larger question of the tactical wisdom of pulling up so close to someone you believed to be armed and dangerous in the first place.

And in the third place, I say this:

Forgive me if I am not impressed by an official report. The experience of being African American has taught me to be skeptical of official reports. As an official matter, after all, Johnson Whittaker beat, bound, gagged and slashed himself. As an official matter, no one knows who lynched thousands of black men and women in the Jim Crow era, even though the perpetrators took pictures with their handiwork. As an official matter, the officers who nearly killed Rodney King while he crawled on the ground committed no crime. As an official matter, George Zimmerman is innocent of murder. For that matter, O.J. Simpson is, too.

I am all too aware of the moral and cognitive trapdoor you dance upon when you give yourself permission to pick and choose which “official” findings to believe. And yes, you’re right: I’d be much less skeptical of officialdom had these reports condemned Officer Loehmann.

What can I say? A lifetime of color-coded, thumb-on-the-scale American “justice” has left me little option but to sift and fend for myself where “official” findings are concerned. Indeed, the only reason I was willing to give credence to a report exonerating Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown is that it came from Eric Holder’s Justice Department, i.e., a Justice Department that gave at least the impression of caring about the civil rights of black people.

Sadly, most prosecutors don’t give that impression. And that failure colors these findings irrevocably.

Last November, two police officers responded to a call of someone brandishing a gun in a park. Rather than position themselves at a safe distance and try to establish contact, as would have seemed prudent, they screeched onto the scene like Batman and came out shooting. Tamir Rice, a boy who had been playing with a toy firearm, lay dying for four long minutes without either officer offering first aid. When his 14-year-old sister ran up and tried to help her little brother, they shoved her down and handcuffed her.

And I’m supposed to believe they acted reasonably because an official report says they did?

Sorry, but it’s going to take a hell of a lot more than that.

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, October 14, 2015

October 18, 2015 Posted by | Police Brutality, Police Shootings, Tamir Rice | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Ferguson Report Offers A Damning Indictment”: In Clear, Concise Language Of An Affidavit, How Far We Have To Go

The timing couldn’t be more appropriate: Last week, barely five days after Dylann Storm Roof allegedly killed nine people at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Justice Department’s The Ferguson Report (New Press; 174 pages, $20 paper), first made public in March, came out in book form.

What do these events have in common? Nothing, and everything. One is an act of domestic terror, the other an account of what appears to be a long-standing pattern of discrimination by the Ferguson, Mo., police department. But what they really trace is a kind of through line, in which we are reminded, again, how deeply disrupted our supposedly “post-racial” society is over the question of race.

“One of the hallmarks of American racism has been the devaluation of black lives,” writes Theodore M. Shaw, former director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, in his introduction to “The Ferguson Report.” “… Ferguson puts the lie to twenty-first century America’s claim of post-racialism.”

That’s not new information. Ferguson, after all — like Charleston — is part of a continuum. “Black lives matter,” Shaw observes. “Yet even after Ferguson, unarmed black men continue to die at the hands of police.”

Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray: This is just a sampling from the last 12 months.

Still, The Ferguson Report is especially damning, for it reveals an institutional culture that targets African Americans. From the report: “Nearly 90% of documented force used by FPD officers was used against African Americans. In every canine bite incident for which racial information is available, the person bitten was African American.”

And this: “We have found substantial evidence of racial bias among police and court staff in Ferguson. For example, we discovered emails circulated by police supervisors and court staff that stereotype racial minorities as criminals, inkling one email that joked about an abortion by an African-American woman being a means of crime control.”

Abortion as a form of crime control? If a single image can encapsulate an entire story, this one does.

Part of the problem is that Ferguson’s policing has been corrupted by a civic culture that values revenue generation over public safety. According to the report, “City and police leadership pressure officers to write citations, independent of any public safety need, and rely on citation productivity to fund the City budget.” As a consequence, “[o]fficers sometimes write six, eight, or, in at least one instance, fourteen citations for a single encounter. Indeed, officers told us that some compete to see who can issue the largest number of citations during a single stop.”

It is not the job of the police to serve the citizens, in other words, but to shake them down.

To be fair, this is not overtly a racial issue, but a social one. The insistence on maximizing income closely mirrors America’s corporate culture, in which growth trumps all concerns and workers are expected to produce more and more by executives who see employees and customers alike as commodities.

In a community, though, such as Ferguson — where an African American majority is policed by a largely white constabulary — race can’t help but be a dominating force. “Data collected by the Ferguson Police Department from 2012 to 2014,” the report explains, “shows that African Americans account for 85% of vehicle stops, 90% of citations, and 93% of arrests made by FPD officers, despite comprising only 67% of Ferguson’s population.”

I could go on, but it’s too depressing — or perhaps not depressing enough. By that, I mean that even in light of all this data, change is not assured.

The Justice Department, for instance — even as it issued this report — did not bring federal charges against police officer Darren Wilson, who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson. When officials such as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio have spoken out on police violence, they’ve been accused of not having their officers’ backs.

Meanwhile, in South Carolina, debate is amping up again over the Confederate flag that flies at the state capital. Finally, I want to say, although this is about 150 years overdue. And yet, it seems to fit a pattern: Something happens, and we talk about it for a while, then forget until it happens again.

And happen again, it will. If The Ferguson Report has anything to tell us, it is that. It is a chilling, disturbing account of police dysfunction, but even more of social dysfunction, of the lies we tell ourselves.

In Ferguson, the report reveals, officials argue “that it is a lack of ‘personal responsibility’ among African-American members of the Ferguson community that causes African Americans to experience disproportionate harm under Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement.” These same officials, the report continues, routinely fix tickets for one another, as if the law did not apply to them.

Personal responsibility. I believe in it. As I believe that the law is a two-way street. The Ferguson Report, however, insists otherwise, reminding us in the clear, concise language of an affidavit, how far we have to go.

 

By: David Ulin, Los Angeles Times (TNS); The National Memo, July 5, 2015

July 7, 2015 Posted by | African Americans, Ferguson Missouri, Ferguson Police Department, Justice Department | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Ferguson, Missouri, Is Not An Exception”: The Whole Darn Country Has A Habit Of Racially Stratified “Justice”

By now, it should come as news to no one that Ferguson, Missouri, has a lousy excuse for a police department.

The behavior of many of its officers, as seen in news reports during last year’s protests and rioting over the shooting of Michael Brown, was thuggish, unprofessional, and contemptuous of the people they supposedly serve. Still, it’s welcome news that a new Justice Department report quantifies the department’s failings, vindicating the mostly African-American populace that has complained about them for years.

It lacerates Ferguson for “a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct … that violates the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments … and federal statutory law.” Ferguson police, according to the report, treat the mostly black and largely poor inhabitants of the St. Louis suburb as a municipal money machine. “City and police leadership,” says the report, “pressure officers to write citations independent of any public safety need, and rely on citation productivity to fund the City budget.”

We also learn that Ferguson police are in the habit of harassing and arresting people without any legal basis. One man, for example, was sitting in his car when an officer approached and, without a shred of reason, called him a pedophile and demanded to search the vehicle. When the man declined, citing his Fourth Amendment rights, the officer is said to have pointed a gun to his head and arrested him. He ended up charged with eight counts, including “making a false declaration.”

It seems that when asked for his first name, he gave a shortened version: “Mike” instead of “Michael.” The man lost his job because of that arrest.

That race is at the root of this mistreatment is attested to by statistics. For instance, the report tells us black drivers in Ferguson are more than twice as likely as white ones to be searched during traffic stops even though white drivers are significantly more likely to be found with contraband. It’s also attested to in emails sent by city officials, such as a “joke” about an African-American woman who has an abortion and is later sent a reward check from Crimestoppers.

That the Justice Department released this report at the same time it exonerated Officer Darren Wilson in the Brown shooting seems designed to make a point: That particular Ferguson police officer may not be guilty, but the Ferguson Police Department most certainly is.

Even that condemnation, though, is ultimately too small. To process this report as just an indictment of one small town is to provide an escape hatch for the many people disinclined, through their own lack of moral courage and intellectual honesty, to admit that the whole darn country has a habit of racially stratified “justice.” We miss the point if we treat Ferguson as some bizarre exception.

So let’s close the escape hatch. Ferguson’s statistics are not shocking. To the contrary, they are replicated nationally. And the Kafkaesque experience of “Michael” reflects everyday reality: Last January, a black man named Chris Lollie was arrested in St. Paul, MN for sitting on a public bench in a skyway between buildings, waiting for his children to get out of school. In September, a black man named Levar Jones was wounded by a state trooper in Columbia, SC, who shot him while he was obeying the trooper’s orders. Last Thanksgiving, a black man named Brandon McKean was stopped in Pontiac, MI, for walking with his hands in his pockets in 32-degree weather.

And so on. Black men and women being manhandled, mistreated and misjudged by the “justice” system is the opposite of uncommon. To whatever degree we pretend the biggest issue here is the sins of one small town, we sanction that ongoing injustice and postpone a reckoning long overdue.

Ferguson is not an exception. It’s an example.

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr.,  Columnist for The Miami Herald; The National Memo, March 9, 2015

March 10, 2015 Posted by | American History, Ferguson Missouri, Police Abuse | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“In Concert With U.S. History”: America’s ‘Ferguson’ Confusion; Why The Problem Has Been Completely Misunderstood

Before I had a chance to peruse the Department of Justice’s long-awaited report on the killing of Michael Brown by former Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson, I had three predictions. The first was that the DOJ would find the city of Ferguson’s finances to be a house of cards built upon a foundation of anti-tax absolutism and white supremacy. That’s what the Washington Post’s Radley Balko found last September, and while I may not share Balko’s libertarian politics, he’s a good journalist, and that report — which described the criminal justice system in St. Louis County as one “guaranteed to produce racial conflict, anger, and resentment” —  is an excellent piece of investigative work.

My second prediction about the DOJ report was that it would find the Ferguson Police Department to be rife with bigotry, which would manifest itself most conspicuously through emails filled with the kind of racist “jokes” that many Americans prefer to call “politically incorrect.” I guessed this not because I had any special insight into the office culture of the Ferguson PD, but because the embarrassing disclosure of racist jokes disseminated among employees by email has become a recurring media story throughout the Obama years. And if the problem is widespread enough to infect the self-styled Hollywood progressives at Sony, it’s hardly a stretch to figure it’s prevalent within a police force with as much historical baggage as Ferguson’s, too.

My third and final prediction, meanwhile, was that the media’s coverage of the DOJ report would devote much more attention to the second prediction (the racist emails) than the first (the systemic dysfunction); and that the response on the part of Ferguson’s civilian leadership would similarly concern itself more with “politically incorrect” jokes than with institutional corruption. I imagined that it would play out this way primarily because that’s how it always does. For a recent example, look no further than former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who saw a decade-spanning empire, which was always fundamentally built on an edifice of bigotry, crumble because he was caught saying what any right-minded person already assumed him to think.

Well, now that the DOJ report has finally been released, and now that I can look back with the benefit of hindsight, the verdict is in. And wouldn’t you know it, I went three-for-three. The report says the Ferguson PD is structurally driven to extort its African-American subjects to fill budget gaps. It also says the Ferguson PD’s email server was a like an online Comedy Cellar for the kind of racist jokes that middle schoolers tell one another when trying to be edgy. And the media has since devoted far more time and digital ink to cataloging jokes unworthy of even Carlos Mencia than it has explaining how a municipality could allow itself to so obviously rely on a system of race-based plunder.

What’s more, the early indications from authorities in Ferguson suggest that I was right to expect their response to focus primarily on the nasty jokes. Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III, last seen informing the folks at MSNBC that his city suffered from “no racial divide,” was quick to respond to the DOJ’s damning report — by firing or placing on administrative leave three officers involved with the racist emails. While he refused to answer any questions, Knowles also informed the media that the police department had recently hired three African-American women, was launching programs intended to build a stronger relationship with Ferguson’s African-American communities, and would institute mandatory diversity training for staff. Knowles also mentioned a few administrative tweaks intended to make the city’s criminal justice system less rapacious, but he also said “there is probably another side to all of [the DOJ report’s] stories.” Gotta hear both sides.

Before you start trying to make “Isquith” and “Nostradamus” rhyme, however, you should be aware of a few realities (besides that being impossible, I mean). For one thing, I’d strongly suspect my predictions were widely shared by those in the American media who focus on politics and race because, again, this story is fundamentally nothing new. For another, not everyone in the media chased the shiny red ball of racist emails, which aren’t even bad in themselves, anyway, but are simply too numerous. Lastly, while it’s very tempting to throw all of our culture’s shortcomings on these issues at the feet of the media — which, to be clear, is far from blameless — the press’s failures here are the result of larger, society-wide problems that are more deep-seated than our fondness for listicles or our penchant for calling others out.

Because, as Ta-Nehisi Coates implies in his response to the DOJ report, one of the major stumbling blocks separating the Fergusons of today from what a city in the United States is supposed to be is a level of historical ignorance and denial that makes confronting white supremacy head-on all but impossible. So long as the mainstream refuses to own up to the way race-based plunder is not contrary to but rather in concert with U.S. history, we will continue to understand racism as what happens when a bunch of mean cops sit around forwarding each other racist jokes. And until we’re willing to recognize that Ferguson is New York City is Los Angeles is Chicago and so on, fewer “politically incorrect” emails is all the change we’re going to get.

 

By: Elias Isquith, Salon, March 7, 2015

March 9, 2015 Posted by | American History, Ferguson Missouri, Racism | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Enough”: The NYPD’s Dangerous, Disgraceful Game

Over two weeks of foot-stomping is enough, don’t you think?

On second thought, maybe that was already far too much.

Of course, I’m talking about the overwrought indignation roiling the New York Police Department since the horrific murder of Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu by a deranged psychopath on Dec. 20.

But first, a concession.

It’s been a tough several months for the police. Their work is often dangerous — sometimes intensely so, requiring heroic acts of valor that go far beyond what the rest of us will ever be called to do in our jobs. They deserve our respect and gratitude for risking their lives and well-being to ensure public safety. Police officers usually receive a decent wage and pension, but they aren’t rich. A significant part of their compensation comes from the honor, deference, and respect they are shown by elected officials and the public at large. It feels good to wear a uniform and carry a weapon, especially when unarmed civilians respond with admiration to both.

That’s the main reason why things have been so tense in the months since the unarmed Michael Brown was gunned down by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. For the first time in decades, the police have come in for widespread, sometimes harsh public criticism. That criticism got harsher after the non-indictment of Wilson — and it got exponentially worse after a grand jury in Staten Island failed to indict the cop who strangled the unarmed Eric Garner to death in a separate incident.

After weeks of loud and angry protests, with large numbers of law-abiding citizens (including some politicians, and myself) raising tough questions about whether cops are shown too much deference in our culture and legal system, tension were running high. Which is why the cold-blooded murder of officers Ramos and Liu was especially shocking. When news of the shooting first broke, it was perfectly understandable for cops to wonder in their grief and fear if it had now become open season on the police.

What is not understandable — or justifiable — is for officers days later to show outright and repeated disrespect to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio by turning their backs on him at public events. Or for them to engage in a dramatic two-weeks-and-running work slowdown that has led to a 50 percent drop in arrests, and a 90 percent decline in parking and traffic tickets, from the same period a year ago.

Such actions are unjustifiable for several reasons.

First, because Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who gunned down Ramos and Liu after shooting his girlfriend and before killing himself, was a lunatic. His crime was not an act of politics; it was an act of madness, however he may have rationalized it to himself in the midst of his homicidal-suicidal rage. In case there is any doubt of this, we have the additional fact that no one in the protest movement views Brinsley as a hero advancing its aims. Far from it. The expressions of anguish, outrage, and disgust at the shooting have been nearly universal and entirely sincere.

That much is obvious to anyone who’s paying attention.

Which means that the cops who are acting out in counter-protest are either behaving like children throwing an irrational temper tantrum or cynically using a tragedy to forestall public criticism and browbeat protesters into silence.

Either way, their actions are disgraceful.

They’re also dangerous.

Liberal democratic government depends on several norms and institutions, including rights to free speech, worship, and assembly, free and fair elections, private property rights, an independent judiciary — and civilian control of the military. Make no mistake about it: the NYPD — with roughly 35,000 uniformed officers, as well as a well-funded and well-armed counterterrorism bureau — is a modestly sized military force deployed on the streets of the city.

It is absolutely essential, in New York City but also in communities around the country, that citizens and public officials make it at all times unambiguously clear that the police work for us. In repeatedly turning their backs on the man elected mayor by the citizens of New York, in refusing to abide by the police commissioner’s requests to cease their protests, in engaging in a work slowdown that could lead to a breakdown in the public order they are sworn to uphold — with all of these acts, the NYPD has demonstrated that it does not understand that the residents of New York City, and not the members of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association or its demagogic leader Patrick Lynch, are the ones in charge.

When police officers engage in acts of insubordination against civilian leadership, they should expect to be punished. Just like insubordinate soldiers.

The principle of civilian control of the military and police depends on it.

It also depends on cops who kill unarmed citizens being tried in a court of law. And on cops respecting the right of citizens to protest anything they wish, including the failure of the judicial system to hold police officers accountable for their use of deadly force in ambiguous situations.

All of this should be a no-brainer. That it apparently isn’t for many police officers and their apologists in the media is a troubling sign of decay in our civic institutions.

The mourning is over. Respect has been paid to the victims of a senseless act of violence. Now it’s time for the NYPD to go back to acting responsibly — and for the rest of us to continue expressing our justified outrage at the recklessness of bad cops and the prosecutors and jurors who enable them.

 

By: Damon Linker, The Week, January 7, 2015

January 10, 2015 Posted by | Bill de Blasio, NYPD, Public Safety | , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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