Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Fixing the Flaws

©Wendell Griffen, 2014

The outcry about the grand jury decision in St. Louis County, Missouri finding no probable cause to charge former Ferguson, Missouri policeman Darren Wilson with a crime for killing Michael Brown, Jr. and a similar grand jury decision in Staten Island, New York finding no probable cause to charge Officer Daniel Pantaleo with a crime for the choking death of Eric Garner focuses attention on several issues. 

At bottom, the deaths of Michael Brown, Jr., Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice (the 12 year-old black child shot to death by Cleveland police while holding a toy pistol) expose a troubling disparity in the way police deal with people of color. Michael Brown and Eric Garner were unarmed.  Tamir Rice was holding a toy pistol.  Brown, Garner, and Rice were not suspected of conduct that threatened the life of anyone the moment before they were killed.  The authority and power to use force doesn’t mean force should be the preferred option when police interact with any segment of society. 

Retrain police to relate with people of color differently!   Tamir Rice was shot almost as soon as police officers encountered him.  Eric Garner was placed in a chokehold and tackled to the ground despite having done nothing to threaten anyone.  Darren Wilson described Michael Brown, Jr. as demonic-looking.  Rice, Wilson, and Brown are three black victims of police killings who, sadly, illustrate how police can mishandle encounters with black people.

 Black and brown children and their parents shouldn’t be afraid they will be automatically considered criminals by the police, whether playing with toy pistols, walking along a street, or standing on a sidewalk.  Black and brown men and women shouldn’t be afraid police will automatically use or threaten physical force during interactions.   

Recruit people who are culturally competent for law enforcement.  Darren Wilson’s cultural incompetence is evident from his grand jury testimony (he described Michael Wilson’s demeanor as demonic—meaning inhuman).  The cultural incompetence of the Ferguson Police Department was clear almost from the moment Wilson killed Michael Brown, Jr.  Culturally incompetent police officers are likely to make culturally incompetent judgments and take culturally incompetent actions. 

Police recruits should be thoroughly vetted about their capacity and experience handling cross-cultural interactions.  A multi-cultural society deserves police who respect and value differences, not people such as Darren Wilson who are afraid of differences. 

Revise the grand jury process!  One suspects that the prosecutors in the Darren Wilson case would not have been allowed to present invalid law to that grand jury had a judge presided over the grand jury proceeding.  I doubt that many (if any) judges would allow prosecutors to inject information related to justification for a homicide into a grand jury proceeding.

Prosecutors should be required to present their probable cause information in a setting overseen by a judge.  Prosecutors already do that when they apply for search warrants.  We should extend that practice to grand jury proceedings concerning arrest warrants. 

Grand jury deliberations, like trial jury deliberations, should remain secret.  Grand jury proceedings, on the other hand, should not be immune from public oversight.  Otherwise the public will not know when errors happen that affect threaten the integrity of probable cause decisions by grand juries. 

These are modest steps society can take to change the poisoned relationship between the police and communities of color.  The question our leaders in civic life, law enforcement, and everyone else must answer is whether we have the courage and moral will to change.

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