Racial bias and legal disparity
In the middle of a case that has incited violent protests, looting, destruction and the militarization of police in American cities during protests, the loud screams, bright fires and flashing police lights have distracted the public attention from some important points of focus.
Those distractions are making the arguments of many very black and white, black versus white and overly racially sensitive, creating angrily defensive racial discussions instead of constructive and critical analyses.
Though Michael Brown was at the center of it all, this issue is not about Michael Brown. Though Brown was black and officer Darren Wilson is white, Wilson likely did not shoot Brown simply because he was black. Though it may have been unjust not to return an indictment, this case was not about the grand jury’s decision itself.
With that said, in my opinion, race relations are definitely a factor to explore in this case and the pre-set instructions and laws that led to the grand jury decision are at the very least flawed.
The real issue revolves around the use of lethal force, possibly excessive force, and the reasons and justifications behind it.
While the days of violent racism have been largely left in the past, to dismiss race as a factor in this case would undermine the only positive in a largely negative situation – the learning opportunity.
Do I believe Wilson shot Brown and killed him simply because he was black? No.
But just because it wasn’t an action fueled by hate, it doesn’t mean race wasn’t a factor.
If preconceived notions and perceptions of young black men made it easier for Wilson to fire his weapon, race was without question a factor. If those perceptions made the difference between Wilson shooting six times or 12 times, race was a factor.
According to a September report by the Sentencing Project cited by a Washington Post columnist, “white Americans overestimate the proportion of crime committed by people of color, and associate people of color with criminality. For some crimes, the overestimation was by 20-30 percent.”
A New York Times/CBS poll also found that 45 percent of African-Americans, compared with just 7 percent of whites, believed they had experienced a specific instance of discrimination by police because of their race. Thirty-one percent of whites acknowledged that police in most neighborhoods are more likely to use deadly force against a black person.
A New York Times article discussing progress and a lack there of in race relations explained the issue rather clearly.
“We often speak of racism now as an ‘implicit’ rather than an ‘explicit’ problem – that the subconscious biases we all hold have created a society of ‘racism without racists,’” the article states.
And that is largely the problem we currently face. A lack of explicit racism has made us forget about subconscious biases, from every culture and race. After all, it’s important to acknowledge that every race and culture has racial biases. We have biases that may be the difference between firing a weapon at someone six times or 12 times, biases and perceptions that can make the difference in a 75-percent white jury to indict or not a white peace officer for fatally shooting a black man.
Those biases not only need to be considered in Wilson actions, but in ourselves as well. We need to make introspective and personal evaluations and adjust our own behavior because race issues cannot possibly be corrected at a societal level without those acknowledgements.
Secondly, we must acknowledge a systemic problem in our legal system that allowed the bar for reasonable cause to be placed much higher for a peace officer than it is for most other people.
Did the grand jury make the right call deciding not to indict Wilson even on lesser charges of involuntary manslaughter? Possibly. And that’s the problem.
At this time, many of us struggle with sometimes conflicting intuitions to support peace officers who risk their lives and civilians who feel mistreated.
The reality is that the great majority of police officers are honorable people who genuinely want to serve and protect their communities. In all honestly, as a young Hispanic man, I can say that every encounter I’ve had with a peace officer, on or off the job, has been professional and in most instances polite and respectful. During my time in South Lake Tahoe, I’ve begun to develop a friendly and professional relationship with all local police agencies I’ve dealt with.
But it is important to remember that peace officers are individuals. We need to look at people and cases individually and not approach an issue involving a peace officer with the idea that he or she is innocent or guilty based on their profession.
In that rare occasion when a police officer dishonors his badge and commits a crime or acts inappropriately, or is reasonably suspected, he or she should be prosecuted with the same diligence that everyone else is.
And that’s what, in my opinion, was missing in Wilson’s case.
A law with loose standards for use of deadly force and a prosecutor who seemed overly defensive of a decision he didn’t make himself may have forced the grand jury to deny the public of a transparent jury trial.
A system that allowed a grand jury to seemingly take it upon itself to decide whether Wilson was guilty instead of simply determining whether there was probable cause to indict, may have robbed the public and Brown’s family of a trial.
Because of the secrecy of grand jury proceedings, our only option is to trust the prosecutor’s and the unknown grand jury’s word that testimony against Wilson was conflicting and that physical evidence corroborated Wilson’s testimony.
Though most of the testimony and evidence was made public, we will not get the opportunity to see the evidence put into context by expert witnesses and challenged by opposing counsel and other expert witnesses in a jury trial. We will not see witness testimony from both sides scrutinized and challenged during cross-examination.
Now, within a couple of weeks, we have seen a similar decision made in the Daniel Pantaleo case, a white NYPD Officer who may have caused the death of an asthmatic black man with an apparent chokehold, a move banned by the NYPD.
We’ll see if these two incidents inspire major changes in racial perceptions and our legal system. For now, the announcement of retraining at the NYPD is a good start.
Isaac Brambila is a reporter at the Tahoe Daily Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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