Back in 2014, a young man was shot in the middle of the street in Ferguson, MO, reputedly in cold blood by a renegade cop who shot first and asked questions later. As the investigation played out, however, it was found that the young man, who was black, was possibly a suspect in a convenience store theft and allegedly reached inside the officer’s (who was white) car and wrestled for his weapon. Thus, the proper investigative organizations – including state and federal agencies and a grand jury convened for the case – decided not to press charges against the police officer, who summarily quit his position as a member of the force and disappeared.
Many have called the situation that occurred in Ferguson the spark of what has been an increase in attention to the conduct of police in the United States. While it was wrong in this case – the police officer was well within his authority to use his weapon against a suspect who had previously attacked him – there have now been a litany of other cases that have come up (perhaps thanks to the attention brought regarding police conduct in the Missouri case) that show the situation with police isn’t changing.
The true “spark” might have been the 2014 death of Eric Garner, a 43-year old father who, while allegedly selling loose cigarettes to people, was allegedly choked to death by police. After a great deal of investigation, a Staten Island, NY, grand jury found that the officer in question, Daniel Pantaleo, might have used an illegal move in restraining Garner but he wasn’t responsible for his death. While you might think that police would have gotten a bit smarter about the situation after this, it instead has become obvious that the cases of police misconduct are much more prevalent than we previously thought.
2015 saw the spark turn into a wildfire. In April, the confrontation between Walter Scott and officer Michael Slager in North Charleston rattled the nation. Claiming that Scott had (at the minimum) grabbed at his Taser, Slager said that he “feared for his life” (get ready, you’ll hear this frequently) in shooting Scott to death. This would have probably been the story that was accepted…until video came out that showed Scott, running away from Slager, mercilessly shot several times in the back and, as he lay dying, Slager come up to him and drop the Taser beside his body. That case, in which Slager was charged with murder and dismissed from the police force, is still pending.
Also in April, the death of Freddie Gray in a Baltimore paddy wagon – despite telling officers he needed medical attention and allegedly having his injuries made more severe through a “rough ride” (a jerking and rough treatment in the cage of a paddy wagon of a person under arrest for causing “problems” for officers) – set the Maryland skies ablaze. Rioting in the inner-city Baltimore neighborhoods brought back sad and eerie reminders of the Ferguson rioting a year earlier, but it seemed to calm once the District Attorney in the case indicted six Baltimore police officers on varying charges related to Gray’s death. One of those officers had his case end in a mistrial and will be retried in 2016; the other five are still awaiting trial.
This isn’t even looking at the case earlier in 2015 in Texas. A 17-year old girl, who had walked into a Longview, TX, police station, was gunned down by police. With a knife in her hand and four words – “I have a gun” – written on her hand, Kristiana Coignard was surrounded by three officers, with one of them shooting the teenager, who was obviously mentally off. After investigation by the Texas Rangers (the law enforcement arm, not the baseball team), no charges were brought against the officers involved.
Now, as we approach the end of 2015, one case from 2014 and several others in one major city over the past couple of years are painting law enforcement in an ever-worsening light. The November 2014 shooting of 12-year old Tamir Rice by Cleveland police officers was a tragedy that shouldn’t have occurred. According to testimony, Rice was carrying an air pistol – a BB gun, basically – and menacingly holding it out at passersby and cars. Police were called and, after two seconds of being on the scene, one officer, Timothy Loehmann, pulled his weapon and shot Rice in the torso; Rice would die the next day from the single shot.
From the start, this case has been a clusterfuck. The Cleveland DA, not wanting to taint his relationship with Cleveland police, laid the case at a grand jury’s feet while allegedly trying to ensure that charges wouldn’t be brought against the officers through manipulation of the evidence (such as getting paid experts to side with the police officers’ side of the story, something unheard of unless in a trial, among other things). This is despite evidence that Loehmann had been found to be an “emotionally unstable recruit unfit for duty” by a previous employer in law enforcement. The DA’s work prevailed as it was announced charges would not be brought against the officers on Monday, putting an entire city on the razor’s edge.
Another city that has been walking the tightrope of tension is Chicago. In a police shooting against a man in November 2014, city officials had dragged their feet on the investigation, including not releasing the videotape from the police cruisers at the scene that reportedly showed Officer Jason Van Dyke gunning down 17-year old Laquan McDonald on a Chicago street. After a Freedom of Information Act request from a local blogger wasn’t blocked by the courts, Chicago government authorities released the video to the general public in all of its ugliness and charged Van Dyke with first-degree murder…more than a year following the shooting.
The video showed McDonald, erratically walking down a street and allegedly waving a small pocketknife around (it cannot be seen in the video until it is kicked away from his body at the end), as police attempted to control the situation with their squad cars and their experience. Allegedly Van Dyke showed up to the scene and, within six seconds of arrival, pulled his weapon and pumped a full clip – 15 shots – into McDonald, who was spun around after two shots and laid prone on the ground as more shots entered his body. He laid in the street for several minutes, without any medical attention, while police cordoned off the scene.
Once again, video was the thing that brought out the discrepancies in the story. Van Dyke alleges that he felt “in fear of his life” in shooting McDonald and that McDonald had lunged at him; in fact, McDonald was walking away from Van Dyke when hit with the first shot. After emptying his clip, Van Dyke was reloading his .45 automatic and preparing to shoot some more until a fellow officer issued a “stand down” order. Perhaps more problematic that Van Dyke’s actions, for which he is currently charged with murder (the first time a Chicago police officer has been charged with murder since 1968) and will face trial in 2016, other officers AGREED with Van Dyke’s account, stating they immediately went in to provide medical attention to McDonald following the shooting.
Now there is another shooting that is roiling the Chicago landscape. The day after Christmas, 19-year old Quintonio LeGrier, allegedly wielding a baseball bat following a domestic disturbance, was shot to death by Chicago police. LeGrier wasn’t the only fatality, however; a 55-year old neighbor, Bettie Jones, was hit by stray police gunfire and died during the shooting. The investigation is ongoing in this case.
It is painfully obvious that there is a need for seismic change in the way police officers are trained and how they conduct themselves in the “real” world. Although it may be claimed that these are “isolated” incidences, when you add in other situations such as those in Alabama and in Maryland, it is happening far too frequently for it to simply be “rogue” officers (this doesn’t even bring up the embezzlement that the Illinois police officer had done for years before he committed suicide – while trying to make it look like he was killed in action – this summer). Through these simple steps, there might be a change in how officers are hired, trained and kept on the force.
Every two years, a police officer – regardless of position or power – should be subjected to a complete physical, psychological and financial review. These reviews would be withering, looking into social media usage and actions outside of the workday (hey, if we can fire teachers for starring in porn videos outside of school hours, we ought to be able to fire officers for being aligned with the KKK, as some in Missouri have alleged to have been) and into their personal lives. If an officer doesn’t agree to such testing, he should lay his badge and gun down then and there and leave the force.
In an effort to further ensure that the truth is discovered, all patrol cars should have video cameras on them and officers themselves should be wearing personal cameras. The penalties for not operating these devices should be dismissal from the police force and banishment from law enforcement. Through the usage of these devices – and the FULL release of said video on demand of the public (several locales are looking to block the public from seeing these videos, corrupting the system rather than making it more transparent) – the truth, more often than not in the favor of law enforcement, would be demonstrated.
Yes, a job in law enforcement is highly dangerous and can result in a person’s death. This doesn’t give a person the right to be the judge, jury and executioner when it comes to situations on the street. It also doesn’t give them carte blanche to indiscriminately fire weapons, as it appears this latest incident in Chicago was.
It is time there was definitive change in the way police conduct themselves for the constituency they are supposed to serve. The day of being able to “fudge” reports, plant evidence (remember the Charleston case) or skew a case through the appropriate language (“in fear of my life”) being used should be long past over. Stand up and take responsibility for what you are doing, law enforcement, or face even more problems down the road.