The streets of Ferguson, Missouri erupted in violence last night with the announcement that following a three month investigation, a state Grand Jury had decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, on Aug. 9, 2014.
As Ben Casselman noted in writing for FiveThirtyEight that same evening, it is incredibly rare for a Grand Jury not to indict a defendant. Casselman wrote,
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.
Andrew D. Leipold, a University of Illinois law professor who has written critically about grand juries, added,
If the prosecutor wants an indictment and doesn’t get one, something has gone horribly wrong, It just doesn’t happen.
But it does seem to happen when an on-duty police officer is involved in a killing. Casselman notes that,
A recent Houston Chronicle investigation found that “police have been nearly immune from criminal charges in shootings” in Houston and other large cities in recent years. In Harris County, Texas, for example, grand juries haven’t indicted a Houston police officer since 2004; in Dallas, grand juries reviewed 81 shootings between 2008 and 2012 and returned just one indictment.
Separate research by Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson has found that officers are rarely charged in on-duty killings.
In his defence, Wilson’s attorneys claimed that Wilson had “followed his training and followed the law” in the shooting death.
The kind of training police officers receive was an apparent factor in the police shooting of John Crawford III just five days earlier, on August 5, 2014, in Beavercreek, Ohio. Crawford was seen carrying an unpackaged BB/pellet rifle in a Walmart store when police officers, responding to an emergency call from another shopper, shot him on sight.
According to the family’s attorney,
Surveillance video showed Crawford facing away from officers, talking on the phone, and leaning on the pellet gun like a cane when he was “shot on sight” in a “militaristic” response by police.
It was later revealed that just two weeks prior to this incident the local police had received a training “pep talk” in what to do when faced with an “active shooter threat.” Instead of evacuating the area and calling in a SWAT team, the officers were encouraged to “engage first” and ask questions later.
Then there is the alarming story from just this week of police in Cleveland, Ohio fatally shooting Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old black boy, who was playing with a fake gun in a city park. According to the reports, police fired on him “despite the fact the suspected weapon was not pointed at them and no threats were made.”
The ugly fact is that according to seven years of FBI data,
White officers kill black suspects twice a week in the United States, or an average of 96 times a year.
An analysis of 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 shows that
Young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than their white peers, mainly at the hands of white police officers.
As Tom McKay recently reported on News.Mic,
the number of white cops shooting black people is just part of a larger problem. Black people across the United States are more likely to face discrimination in the criminal justice system and be harassed, arrested and shot by police. Sadly, even the most extreme cases of police excess often end in little punishment.
In a country where “open carry” laws allow white citizens to walk through their neighborhoods and enter businesses and even churches armed with assault rifles, it can be a death sentence for a black person to be seen with a gun even if it is a toy.
The Scope of the Problem
There is a great deal of truth in Zeeshan Aleem’s statement in Policy.Mic yesterday that in much of the U.S.,
race determines whether you’re viewed as a citizen or a problem.
To illustrate this point, I return to the statement of Paul Waldman cited in a previous post [4 Disturbing Revelations in the Wake of Ferguson] whre he recalls that as a white person,
in all my years I’ve never been stopped by a cop who just wanted to know who I was and what I was up to. I’ve never been accused of “furtive movements,” the rationale New York City police use for the hundreds of thousands of times every year they question black and Hispanic men. I’ve never been frisked on the street, and nobody has ever responded with fear when I got in an elevator. That’s not because of my inherent personal virtue. It’s because I’m white.
This is in stark contrast to Jonathan Capehart’s recollection of the crucial lesson his mother drilled into him as a black youth of
How I shouldn’t run in public, lest I arouse undue suspicion. How I most definitely should not run with anything in my hands, lest anyone think I stole something. The lesson included not talking back to the police, lest you give them a reason to take you to jail — or worse. And I was taught to never, ever leave home without identification.
The systemic oppression faced by black individuals – especially male black youth – in the U.S. is almost unimaginable to white Americans. Zeeshan Aleem reports that,
Black men not only encounter constant surveillance, violence and shockingly high chances of correctional supervision for matters that the rest of the population does not, but they also then face discrimination in housing, employment, financial services and political rights after they exit prison.
The following shocking statistics reinforce this claim:
- the U.S. currently incarcerates a far greater percentage of its black population than South Africa did under apartheid.
- more than half of the young black men in many large American cities are currently under the control of the criminal justice system (or saddled with criminal records)
- more black adults live under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole —than under slavery in 1850.
It is no wonder that many African-Americans seriously mistrust the American system of justice. Under current laws and legal practices systematic injustice has become the norm.
For many white onlookers, the recent events in Ferguson have helped to lift the veil on this sordid side of American life. But for black Americans it was no revelation at all. It was a reality they were all too familiar with.
Photo credits: AP. CCTV