For several months the media has actively reported the killing of two African American men, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, by white police officers and the resultant failure of the grand juries to indict either of the officers.
The failure to indict caused vigorous protests in both locations which, in the Ferguson area, erupted into violence, looting and arson. The protest rhetoric escalated. One group recklessly chanted recently they wanted dead cops.
The stories of these two incidents fed upon the emotional issues involved — excessive use of force by the police and racial prejudice. The explosive nature of these issues and their incendiary exploitation by some precluded a universal acceptance of the actual facts.
A calming was needed. The president had an epic opportunity but he failed to find the words that would have the desired healing effect.
The incidents raised deep emotional issues, making a reasoned discussion of their full characteristics extremely difficult. However, this article will attempt to offer some guidelines.
Much of the media attention has centered on the issue as to the existence of a basic mistrust between young black men and police officers. To bridge such concerns it is nearly always true that corrective efforts must be made by both sides. However, virtually all of the suggestions being made are directed to steps the police should take, such as better training. While it may be politically awkward to focus on it, the fact is that young black men are the perpetrators of a disproportionate amount of violent crime. This gives understandable apprehension to enforcement officials. As ever, improvement of the condition requires adjustments for both sides.
Our country operates under the rule of law. Police officer arrests are the first step of the criminal justice system. The law requires compliance with lawful orders by police. When persons resist arrest, officers are permitted to use reasonable force to enforce their orders. The only sure way to avoid violence incident to an arrest is to obey the police order. While it is understandable for persons who believe they are falsely accused to take exception to an arrest, that attitude is not legally supportable. The incidents involved in this article would not have resulted in the tragedies that occurred if there had been compliance.
Protests over the killings arose principally after the applicable grand jury failed to indict the police officer involved. There has been considerable criticism of the use of grand jury proceedings in these cases. After an arrest is made, the prosecuting attorney to whom the matter is referred has several choices. He may decline to prosecute using what is called “prosecutorial discretion,” he may act to initiate proceedings or he may refer the case to a grand jury. The referral of the cases to grand juries is an integral part of the criminal justice system and was reasonable, but it is a valid point that a special prosecutor should have been appointed on the grounds that the relationships between the local prosecutor and the police, who he often depends on for support, is not objective.
Federal authorities announced they planned to investigate the possible violation of the civil rights of the victims. Sensing political opportunity, the attorney general said he would issue new rules on racial profiling although the two incidents involved none. These actions presumably remain pending, but no direct evidence has emerged that racism was a motive in either killing.
It is of interest that instances of violent protesting, looting and arson occurred in Ferguson, Missouri but not in New York. This is despite the fact that the grand jury failure to indict was much less defensible in the Garner killing. Probably, this result is a tribute to the efficiency and training of the New York police force.
It is claimed by some that police targeting black men and killing them is rampant. The facts do not support this claim — only a little over 100 such killings occurred in 2012, the last year statistics were available.
The two deaths that occurred are tragic, but they are dwarfed by the far too many black lives which are lost in urban gang wars and other black on black crimes. Conditions for African Americans have deteriorated in recent years. Surveys show that over 70 percent of black mothers are unmarried and their children are raised in fatherless families. Unemployment is at a record high and those blacks under the poverty level are increasing. The primary focus of our media and governmental attention should be on the improvement of these realities rather than on any deficiencies of our police.
Walter Lewis is a resident of Princeville.