Sunday, May 03, 2015

The Agency of Accountability: The Time Is Now

I didn't write or say much about the killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore because at the time all I had was the same rage as before about the mindset of brutality among our law enforcement officers towards minorities.  We can repeat the names - Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, what is turning out to be tens if not hundreds more - and we can cry for justice, but time and again justice refused to hold their own accountable for their sins of excessive force and perjured ass-covering.

But at about the same time that I heard word about BridgeGate and how Chris Christie's circle of friends was getting smaller, news out of Baltimore sent shockwaves across the nation:

Six police officers were charged Friday in the death of Freddie Gray as Baltimore’s top prosecutor acted with surprising swiftness in a case that ignited protests and rioting here. She described how Gray allegedly was arrested illegally, treated callously by the officers, and suffered a severe spine injury in the back of a police van while his pleas for medical help were ignored.
Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby publicly delivered her stunning, detailed narrative of extensive police misconduct in the latest of several cases nationwide that have fueled anger over heavy-handed law enforcement tactics in low-income communities.

Unlike other moments where other cops caught on camera are facing up to the false reports and damaged lives left in their wake, this was huge because the incident itself is so recent.  Most other "official" investigations took months, went through grandiose staged grand juries that didn't peruse evidence as much as convict the victims and free the killers.

This time, Baltimore's state attorney controlling the investigation filed charges as soon as the evidence made it clear just what the cops responsible for Gray's death failed to do (and brings up questions about what they might have done):

  • Walking down a street with a companion, Gray makes eye contact with a cop and shows aversion, running from the scene.  Cops give chase, leading up to Gray captured and getting injured on his leg.
  • A knife is found on Gray, but it's a standard pocket-knife, not a switchblade.  It's legal.  There are no warrants or cause for arrest, yet the cops still take him in, handcuffing him and later putting him in leg irons.  He is not seated but left on the floor.
  • Gray begins asking for an inhaler, having problems with breathing, but otherwise appears physically fine to eyewitnesses at his arrest.
  • The police van transporting him takes 30 minutes to drive a two-minute route to the nearest station, although halfway there the van stops for paperwork reasons and because the van driver claims Gray is "irate".  Whatever happened here, the prosecutors' office investigated down to the atoms for some reason, rounding up potential eyewitnesses and finding any street cameras that documented the timeline.
  • Van arrives at the station, at which point Gray is unable to talk, breathe, or move.  A medic is called, and Gray is taken to a hospital where he slips into a coma and later dies.
  • Autopsy reveals that Gray had 80 percent of his spine severed.

What happened to Gray in that van is known as a "rough ride", a shockingly common practice nobody really talks about because it violates the hell out of every legal right in the book, causes excessive injuries to its victims, and is used by cops to deal with "unruly" prisoners who just happen to look at them wrong.  A rough ride - where an unbuckled prisoner would get thrown hard against something whenever the van swerved the wrong way - could have easily caused that spinal injury that killed Gray.

Just note that one part I mentioned in the previous paragraph: It's common.

It's common, apparently, for our law enforcement to act like bullies to the very people they're supposed to serve and protect.  It's common for excessive force to be used every day by the cops, whether it's pulling over guys on bicycles, or using illegal choke holds, or emptying entire clips into one unarmed black man.  It's common to use force, and then the threat of force: because once people know you're capable of it and never get called on it, they have every reason to fear your use of force, don't they...?

It's common because it was... it IS... the policy of the powerful.  To quote Ta-Nehisi Coates:

But I have a problem when you begin the clock with the violence on Tuesday. Because the fact of the matter is that the lives of black people in this city, the lives of black people in this country have been violent for a long time. Violence is how enslavement actually happened. People will think of enslavement as like a summer camp, where you just have to work, where you just go and someone gives you food and lodging, but enslavement is violence, it is torture. Torture is how it was made possible. You can’t imagine enslavement without stripping away people’s kids and putting them up for sale. And the way you did that was, you threatened people with violence. Jim Crow was enforced through violence. That was the way things that got done. You didn’t politely ask somebody not to show up and vote. You stood in front of voting booths with guns, that’s what you did. And the state backed this; it was state-backed violence.

And so the cops rarely answer for the violence they commit.  Because the state profits from it.

The other troubling thing is the crime cops commit on a regular basis for which they never answer: the constant lying about their own actions.  Oh, we know excessive force when it's used, and the cops know too, and so to make themselves look better they perjure themselves.  They lie about the reasons why they went for the gun instead of the pepper spray, they lie about why they used the pepper spray, they lie about the severity of the injuries they've caused, they lie about evidence because that planted gun and bag of drugs has to count for something to earn that conviction rate...

It happens so often the cops call it "testilying".

As far back as the Rodney King assault/arrest, I could barely accept the fact that the jury acquitted the cops of violently beating King to within an inch of his life.  What enraged me further was how the charge that they lied on their arrest reports - they reported "minor injuries" when King suffered concussion and broken bones - didn't stick.  The jury let them slide on the one thing that wasn't in argument: the fact that they lied about what they did to King.  The medical evidence clearly contradicted everything the cops claimed, and the jury still acquitted.

And we complain about the communities rising up in riots after every questionable death.  Because we as a society, we Americans living outside of that poverty zone, outside of those red-lined ghettos, can turn a blind eye because we buy those lies, we take the cops' word when time and again cops have been caught lying.  Because we refuse to hold accountable those who have the law as their excuse.

But it is long overdue for cops to be held accountable (Quis custodiet...).

...But at the same time, (Mosby) added, “those officers that usurped their authority, you have to be able to hold them accountable because it does a disservice to the really hardworking police officers. So for me it’s about applying justice fairly and accurately to those with or without a badge...”

We need to do more than talk about needed reforms in our law enforcement practices.  We need action to reduce the use of excessive force down to nil.  We need a judicial system in place that can better police its own to ensure lying cops do not profit from their lies.

We need to recognize that the injustice of excessive force can no longer be tolerated.

We need to recognize that lies kill.  Lies can kill justice as much as those lies can kill our loved ones.

1 comment:

dinthebeast said...

There are two things I try to remember about cops before I even get to the racial dynamic:
One, the militarization of police forces has exacerbated the self-selection process that has always drawn bullies to the power afforded those who wear a badge. Not all cops are bullies, but some bullies manage to become cops.
And two, cops are notoriously difficult to prosecute. Not only is the system heavily biased in their favor, and comprised of people they work with on a regular basis, but knowing how to testify, or word a report to obtain a conviction is a fundamental job skill for them, so as you noted, they are hard to beat in front of a jury.
I personally don't think much is going to change in their behavior until we do something about the drug prohibition laws that cause them to be feared and hated by the communities they are being paid to serve and protect before they ever show up. Even the non-bullies have to get sick of dealing with that all of the time.

-Doug in Oakland