Commentary: Killing with impunity

The media have given us extraordinary exposure to recent events involving the police. It’s a rare viewer or listener who has not formed some conclusion about them. But they’re all over the lot. The views of the Daily’s readers are as good as any of the others. Here are a few of them.

We know some things. This piece focuses on two celebrated cases – one each in Missouri and New York. In each case, an unarmed black man was killed by a policeman. In one of the cases, there are differing views on some of the details. However, in the other case, in New York, anyone with a TV in the United States could see a policeman choking to death an unarmed black man. In both cases, the policemen are free, not even indicted.

We know some other things. Black people have been killed with impunity in this country since before its founding. It was common during slavery. Lynching was a frequent event when segregation was the rule. And those who recall the “civil rights” struggle are familiar with the fate of numerous “activists.”

We know, too, the basic outlines of part of the criminal justice system under scrutiny here. Most would agree that law and order are foundations of a functional nation. Critical to this function is law enforcement. Policing is a difficult and dangerous profession. When the cop confronts an individual brandishing a firearm, the cop deserves the benefit of the doubt. Other confrontations, however, present more difficult issues.

A close partner of law enforcement is prosecution – the prosecuting attorney (the commonwealth attorney, the district attorney, etc). The police, on the ground, enforce the law and gather evidence. The prosecutor presents that evidence first to a grand jury seeking an indictment, then to a jury or court seeking a conviction. It’s often said that a ham sandwich can be indicted. That’s because the standard (burden of proof) for indictment is much lower than for conviction and the prosecutor controls the process. While this procedure is not perfect, it ordinarily works quite well.

But what about when the accused or the defendant is a policeman? Then there is an obvious conflict of interest. It has come to the fore in the Missouri and New York cases. It’s asserted that the prosecutor has, in fact, served more as a defense counsel than prosecutor in both cases. Not even an indictment has resulted.

It is no wonder that these widely publicized killings of unarmed black men have resulted in widespread unrest, not only among minorities. There have been strong condemnations by a number of prominent conservatives. Indeed, hundreds of years of such events is enough. So, what’s to be done?

Probably the most universal cure would be the end of racism and bigotry. During the lifetime of many, there have been improvements on this score. But an end to it? Not foreseeable in the lifetime of those of us now with us.
Peaceful protest is a legitimate catalyst for change. It is a right protected by the U.S. Constitution as a way of seeking redress for perceived grievances. But looting, burning, attacking policemen and stopping traffic are not acceptable parts of protest. They are no one’s right; they are simply crimes likely to harm the cause of their participants.

Better training of the police and police body cameras? Maybe. But vivid pictures of the New York killing available to everyone saw no action against the perpetrator. One promising approach is the termination, in the criminal justice field, of the close collaboration between the roles of law enforcement and prosecutor when a police officer is charged. The results of that collaboration is clear in the cases being discussed here. A special prosecutor in all such matters offers a real prospect for reform.

When outrageous conduct that has been tolerated in this land since the 1600s continues today, it is well past time that something be done about it. Each concerned citizen has a way to take some action – exercising the freedom of speech; contacting legislators; using social media; yes, even writing letters to the editor. But wrong cries out for action.

Bob Lowerre is a retired lawyer living in Woodstock