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U.S. DOJ report confirms abuses of African-Americans by police

The report confirmed moral problems by police and 'zero tolerance policing' by undertrained officers led to massive abuses  The U.S. Department of Justice recently released a scathing report confirming the dubious state of the Baltimore Police

The report confirmed moral problems by police and ‘zero tolerance policing’ by undertrained officers led to massive abuses

 The U.S. Department of Justice recently released a scathing report confirming the dubious state of the Baltimore Police Department in its dealings with the African-American. The report confirmed, particularly, that the use of “zero tolerance policing” for undertrained and lightly supervised officers led to massive abuses of citizen constitutional rights.

Among the most startling facts were that many African-American males were stopped dozens of times with no charges filed; and that an African-American woman stopped for a minor vehicle violation found herself stripped-searched at an abnormal rate. Often, officers lacked the reasonable suspicion needed to justify traffic stops. During the time period examined, police made 520 stops per 1,000 African-American residents “three times the rate of White citizens.”

The death of Freddie Gray is perhaps the biggest example of what some believe to be the problem with the police in Baltimore, Md., with symbolism for police everywhere, even if unfairly so. However, the lack of success in prosecuting the officers related to the Gray case (despite a ruling of homicide, none were found guilty and prosecutors dropped all charges) would seem to contradict the Justice Department report.

Similarly, in Jefferson, Mo., while the prosecutor refused to bring charges against Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown, a Justice Department report on the police department underscored problems contributing to an environment that makes such shootings more likely to occur. A few observations provide context.

First of all, Freddie Gray and Michael Brown highlight the reticence in prosecuting police officers, and the difficulty in successfully doing so when deemed necessary. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” is a high legal standard (as it should be), and while the Freddie Gray facts were startling, they do not always result in a criminal prosecution and conviction, particularly of police officers.  Also, the prosecutor, even if well-intentioned, seemed to react to the political tide (at best), and now faces Grievance Commission charges for ethics violations and lacking probable cause in bringing charges.

Most importantly, even though African-Americans are more likely to be killed by police than Whites, the Justice Department report shows that problems related to police do not always result in death, and most of the time they don’t.   Death makes headlines, but a far more pervasive problem is how African-Americans (largely law abiding) who live to tell the tale, are treated. Illegal violations notwithstanding, there are fundamental and frequent problems with disrespect and harassment of African-Americans where Whites do not suffer similarly.

This is not to bash police officers. Many, if not most, put themselves in harm’s way every day and want to do right.  This should be emphasized and commended.  Most African-Americans have officers that are friends or family members. That said, there are too many places in our country where a culture of unfairness and intimidation is perpetuated on Blacks and tolerated.

As a lawyer I may bring a civil rights case that I could very easily lose because unfairness, harassment, and disrespect do not always amount to a violation of the law. However, even in times where it has been judged there is no criminal legal problem (Michael Brown, Freddie Gray), we have to face the fact that we certainly have a moral problem. It only takes a few bad officers to perpetuate a culture that institutional racism set in place long ago.

Without dealing with underlying notions that lead to Whites and non-Whites being viewed differently in all aspects of society, which carries over into policing, even terms like “reasonableness” will continue to subjectively work to the disadvantage of some. In a self-defense case, (like Travon Martin), a jury held that George Zimmerman had a reasonable fear for his life or of great bodily harm. Since that time, Zimmerman has showed himself to be anything but reasonable. It was morally wrong for Zimmerman to search out Martin because of his perception that Martin didn’t belong where he was.

However, people, including juries, even when trying to be fair, look at things through the window of their experiences, which are largely shaped by institutional norms. “Black Lives Matter” attempts to say “we matter too” in a culture that already recognizes that “White lives matter.”  While fear of violence against police should not be minimized, the fact that officers’ lives matter is demonstrated by the fact that police killers are not on the street. In short, there is no institutional minimization of White lives, or of police lives.

In short, we have to get to the heart of the issue. The undertones of the recent killings of Black men by police in Louisiana and Minnesota should not be minimized if there is no criminal conviction. Baltimore, Mass. or Jefferson, Mo., underscore a legal problem, as the Justice Department suggests, despite the view of some, including prosecutors and segments of the public. But, legal problem or not, the minimizing of African-American lives, both in quantity (living vs. dying) and quality (peace and freedom vs. harassment and disrespect), shows that we certainly have a moral problem. And that is perhaps far more dangerous.


Joe Richardson, Esq. is a native son of South-Central Los Angeles, and an attorney practicing tort, contract, and labor, and employment law in Southern California for more than 15 years. He also teaches and speaks on legal issues.


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