It was sad but not surprising when the Ferguson, Mo., grand jury failed to indict police officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown. There were conflicting witness accounts and conflicting forensic reports, and one wonders if that wasn’t precisely why an indictment and jury trial were in order. Surely a trial was needed to hear all the evidence and arguments on both sides to determine the truth. Except, of course, the defendant was a police officer, and cops, it seems, always get the benefit of the doubt.
Then there was the tragic, senseless death of Eric Garner in New York City. A video of the incident made the whole world witness to what happened. Whether you called it a choke hold or a takedown, an officer put his arm around Garner’s neck to subdue him and force him to the ground. Garner gasped repeatedly (11 times) that he couldn’t breathe while several more officers piled on top of him. Why maintain the choke/takedown hold once he was down? Why have others keep their weight on him when he repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe? Intentionally or not, they killed Garner as surely as if they’d shot him. Yet even with the entire incident caught on video, the grand jury still didn’t indict.
In these and countless other cases, cops seem to be above the law, untouchable. They aren’t accountable to anyone but their superiors — fellow law officers. Time and time again we see cases where cops beat, taser, or shoot defenseless civilians and are never charged with a crime. And the abuses continue. Apparently the threat of suspension, temporary loss of pay, or maybe loss of employment are not adequate deterrents.
We must change the “murder isn’t murder if a cop does it” system of justice because it isn’t justice. It’s assault, manslaughter, or murder legalized. The blue wall of silence is great for protecting cops, but it’s doing nothing to discourage police brutality and use of excessive force.
It’s been said that cops need to be free to react in an instant to a threatening situation without having to worry about being prosecuted later for their actions. Of course they do. But there has to be some kind of accountability for situations like Eric Garner’s, where officers initiate a confrontation with someone who’s doing nothing wrong and that person ends up dead at the hands of those officers. Another egregious example: Eight cops pump 45 bullets into a mentally ill homeless man armed only with a penknife.
And what about the still unresolved case of the innocent, unarmed man killed in Oklahoma City by cops who pinned, pepper-sprayed, and suffocated him? Or the cop in Cleveland who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice less than 2 seconds after confronting him for carrying a toy gun? Or the countless other cases like these? Is it excessive force when an unarmed suspect ends up dead? Obviously it is. Will the cops involved be prosecuted for assault, manslaughter, or murder? Probably not.
Certainly not all cops are thugs or mentally unstable or John Wayne wannabes running amok and abusing their authority. Most are responsible men and women doing a tough, thankless, sometimes dangerous job trying to keep us all safe. But there are bad apples in every department, in every city, and their excesses, carelessness, and disregard are killing people.
Putting cops above the law they are sworn to enforce is a terrible idea. At the very least it undermines public confidence in the law. At worst, it lets criminals go free. The system needs to change.