As a child in the Fifties, I recall news of lynching in far-away places like Mississippi and Alabama. When I asked my father what this meant, his response was simply “Someone died.” The war gave Dad an egalitarian view of humanity. Everyone’s blood is red. One of the drawbacks of growing to adulthood is a sudden awareness of life’s inequities. The racial divide becomes crystal clear and awareness is no longer an abstract intellectual concept. We now have the video to back it up. Graphic, gut-churning, images that put a cold, wet hand around your throat. Sobs and screams, imploring, and finally, the voices of shocked disbelief. Candles, flowers, balloons, teddy bears…
When I saw the images of a prone Rodney King being pummeled by batons in 1991, my first reaction was that no living thing should be beaten in such a way. It was a frenzy of policemen taking baseball swings at a prone black man who was not resisting. The four white LAPD officers who perpetrated the beating were acquitted and what followed was the infamous L.A. Riot, followed by the equally infamous orchestrated retreat by law enforcement. I was working in Hollywood at the time and gazed in wonder at the armored van barricading the entrance of the police station, while everything south of Melrose Avenue burned.
The video still haunts me. I could watch it only once. I was able to watch Laquan McDonald being used for target practice no more than once. Or an unarmed Walter Scott being shot in the back as he fled from a traffic stop. Then Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown. A single viewing is all a sane person needs to understand that something is terribly wrong. Every visual evidence is the state of policing in America carries an imperative for victimizing people of color.
I say this with the stipulation that the number of rogue cops is actually a small percentage of the total profession. Yet those few troubled figures dictate a powerful and palpable fear throughout the community and are a disaster to civilian trust. It’s an overt, repeating pattern. Police departments across the country bear closer scrutiny as a haven for a variety of nihilistic personalities.
And now, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. The nightly news puts death on an endless loop while warning us about graphic and disturbing content. It is an advertisement for the institutional murder of black men. As for the tragedy in Dallas, how can anyone be surprised? The only shock is that it didn’t take place in Chicago. There is ample reason it could have.
Chicago, October 2014 – An drug-intoxicated LaQuan McDonald was shot sixteen times by Officer Jason VanDyke. Twelve of those rounds fired after he had fallen. It was more than a year before the dash-cam video was released showing evidence contradictory to the police account. Further discovery revealed Mayor Rahm Emanuel was up to his eye sockets in a cover-up and five million-dollar pay-off to the McDonald family. Jason VanDyke was indicted for murder and faces a sentence of 20 years to life imprisonment. The case marks the first time a Chicago police officer has been charged with first-degree murder for an on-duty fatality in nearly 35 years. At least 20 citizen complaints had been filed against Officer Van Dyke since 2001, but none resulted in disciplinary action.
Chicago, December 2015 – Quintonio LeGrier was shot six times by police in a fusillade of bullets that also left a neighbor, Bettie Jones, fatally wounded. While LeGrier’s father claimed he was being threatened by his son, 911 calls reveal that it was actually the son who called police first. An official Medical Examiner’s report suggests the shots were fired in the hallway. The physical evidence suggests the shots were fired from the curb. Officer Robert Rialmo is now suing the LeGrier estate for ten million dollars citing “extreme emotional trauma” for having to take the life of their son.
Chicago, June 2016 – A video surfaces of suspect Shaquile O’Neal (no, not that one) being head-kicked unconscious while on the ground, handcuffed. The Fraternal Order of Police (CPD’s union) said it disagrees with the decision to strip police powers from the offender before IPRA (Independent Police Review Authority) has completed its investigation into the incident.
“It’s just another disappointing display of, what we consider to be a consistent, anti-police (attitude). The police are just wondering what it takes to get considered as a viable part of society.” – Fraternal Order of Police
Perhaps we should wait for a determination as to whether the cop’s shoe was hard-sole leather or rubber-soled sneaker. Police unions are some of the most robust labor advocacies in the country. In numbers, there is strength…and political clout. An illuminating article by Flint Taylor delves into the dark world of police unions.
…”they mirror and reinforce the most racist, brutal and reactionary elements within the departments they claim to represent and actively encourage the code of silence within those departments.”
These cases are just some representative highlights. Cash settlements for the remediation of complaints with the CPD total over half a billion dollars. That figure easily represents the salvation of our bankrupt and troubled school system.
The police are rarely prosecuted successfully. There is no courtroom miracle or lawsuit solution, no matter how clever the litigator, that is going to discipline the police. Nor are military accoutrements the base cause of trouble. They just look thuggish and reveal a fearful over-reaction by the police, an after-effect. The real action takes place on the streets with the most common enforcement actions, the point where things go all wrong. Moreover, how does a policeman NOT understand that someone is going to document his actions, even after he sabotages the dash-cam and body-cam? A more frightening scenario is that the policeman DOES know he is being monitored, and doesn’t care.
The real tragedy of the Dallas shootings is the progressive improvements made department-wide by police Chief David Brown. In 2012, the department committed itself to transparency. It developed a policy that emphasized de-escalation. Police officers in Dallas are subject to lethal force training every two months instead of every two years. Chief Brown released an enormous amount of police data publishing statistics including 12 years’ worth of data on police shootings on an official online repository. The number of body cameras used by officers increased. Poor performing police officers were fired.
In Chicago we are saddled with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose machinations regarding revenue are the stuff of legend (and fodder for a future article). Former Superintendent Garry McCarthy gave a glimmer of hope for elevating the department’s operations. Instead, he was scapegoated for the results of a disastrous economic policy that victimized and impoverished entire sections of the city.
The first step in changing the actions of our police is to get rid of the fantasy, once and for all, that the law is on our side. The law is firmly on the side of police, even those who open fire on unarmed civilians.
The use of deadly force is governed by the Tennessee v. Garner ruling in 1985 in which the U.S. Supreme Court said that “deadly force…may not be used unless necessary to prevent the escape and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious bodily harm to the officer or others.” The court later expanded its definition to include an “objective reasonableness” standard. Use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer at the scene and its calculus must embody the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation. Simply stated, the policeman on the scene gets to make a judgement call regarding deadly force.
Next, break the intransigent stranglehold of the police union, the Fraternal Order of Police.
When policemen understand the consequences of their actions and have clear limits defined by state law, when indictments and sentences are handed down to rogue cops based upon those well-defined limits, when there is a provincial political motivation, this will change. Ultimately, the institutes of law enforcement will conform to the parameters they are given for, at least, their personal interests. As a community, we hope for more, but that would be an effective start.
“This is potentially a state authorized killing. It gives law enforcement officers the authority and mandates them to kill when in defense of themselves or others.” – District Attorney Hillar Moore (regarding Alton Sterling)
Finally, policing is the province of state governments. Being proactive, we can make a difference. The viable remedies are as fundamental as a gubernatorial election, a mayoral election, the appointment of a police and fire commission, a board of review, your state senators, representatives, judges and magistrates. We are too frequently caught in the maelstrom of presidential politics and take a laissez faire attitude about election issues in our immediate surroundings. Attend your local city council meeting, ask questions and demand answers. Be informed and vote.
Across the country, 116 black people were killed by law enforcement officers in the first six months of 2016. How do we ignore the ProPublica investigation that found that young black men are shot dead by police at 21 times the rate of young white men?
We sit atop a powder-keg and the sparks move closer.
- Joe Tortorici