What Police Custody Deaths Say About Us

By JOHN BUTERBAUGH

Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Freddie Gray. These names have led to public outrage and even riots. They have led to accusations of racial profiling, loss of trust in the police, and worsening race relations in the United States. A 2009 poll indicated that two-thirds of Americans believed race relations were good. That number dropped to about 40% in 2015. These shootings have also given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. What we do know is that police officers were trying to arrest each of these men for some reason — stolen cigarillos, illegal cigarettes, or an illegal switchblade. The amount of force in apprehending these men has come under scrutiny. All three of these men died due to police force. The police shot Michael Brown, choked Eric Garner, and injured Freddie Gray in the spine.

The August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, led to some calls for body cams on police officers. The rationale for this was the conflicting stories between eyewitnesses and the police report. In order for a written police report to be truly objective and truthful, some argue, video evidence must exist that confirms that written report. The officer that shot Michael Brown did not have the video evidence that would confirm or refute his innocence. City police departments around the country have adopted body cams to provide more footage of police and resident activity. Police officers who believe they are doing the right thing, especially when confronting tough criminals, should want video evidence that proves they are. Thousands of citizen complaints occur, and body cams would help settle any disputes. However, Ferguson had already adopted police body cams, and these body cams were not capturing footage when Michael Brown was shot and killed.

In any case, sometimes video evidence is not enough to indict or convict a police officer for wrongdoing. In July 2014, Eric Garner was selling illegal cigarettes in Staten Island, and the police tried to bring him under custody through a choke-hold. Garner was pronounced dead an hour later at a local hospital. While Garner’s death was ruled a homicide, no criminal charges were made against the police. Instead, Garner’s family received $5 million in an out-of-court settlement. When video footage is not enough for indictment, there are those who advocate for an independent prosecutor.

Prosecutors rely on the police to apprehend criminals and bring them to justice. If a prosecutor were to then bring a police officer to court, it could strain relations between the prosecutor and the police. As such, an independent prosecutor would step in to investigate deaths that occur in police custody. In 2014, Wisconsin passed a law creating such an official after the death of a young Kenosha man made headlines. Bills in other states have emerged but have not become law. Time will tell if Wisconsin’s independent prosecutor is a model for other states.

Another issue with body cams is an officer could turn his body away from the action. In the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore,the police officer did not secure Gray in a seatbelt and his allegedabrupt driving threw Gray around the van and injured his spine. Wearing a body cam would have been irrelevant as it would have only shown what was in front of the officer and not Gray sitting in the back of the van. However, audio evidence did indicate that Gray asked to be sent to the hospital. The officer faces the charge of second-degree murder for deliberately allowing Gray to die. Prosecutors have stated that it would be very difficult to convict the officer without the testimony of another officer.

In 2012, more than 4,000 people died while in police custody at a local jail or state prison. Sandra Bland is one of those. The greatest public outrage seems to have come from the incidents surrounding Brown, Garner, and Gray. There are many other deaths that have inspired great outrage. The upheaval in our inner cities over these deaths demonstrates that racial tensions have not been solved, and that many questions still lie regarding this issue. There is also the issue of police trust. While the police remain among the most trusted institutions, trust in the police has not been this low in 22 years.

However, the fall in trust has not been dramatic. From 2013 to 2015, when many of these incidents occurred, trust in the police dropped from 57% to 52%, only 5%. The majority of Americans still believe that the police are working to keep our communities safe, but that majority is not evenly distributed among different races or ideologies. Democrats trust the police less than Republicans, and African Americans trust the police less than white Americans. This demonstrates that public attitudes are divided, and an effort to bridge this divide is needed.

The media focuses on individual shootings, but we gloss over a number of systemic problems involving race. African Americans are far more likely to go to prison than white Americans. Yes, individuals should take responsibility for their actions and face the consequences. However, more action is needed in providing legitimate economic opportunities for the disadvantaged who might otherwise turn to illegal sources of income. There’s an old saying: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” However, society has failed to teach at-risk Americans what they can do to be self-sufficient in today’s economy and to avoid falling into criminal activities. Such an educational system needs strong leadership, especially from African Americans who have grown up in poverty and have chosen against gangs, drugs, and violence. It needs buy-in from numerous parties, and it needs vision. It makes sense that we would be “Waiting for Superman.” We have to become “Superman” if we want our society to be better toward the less fortunate… if we want anything to change.

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