Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice: Two Grand Juries Two Similar Decisions

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Dec 26, 2015 (San Diego) We will hear it from the law and order types. The two cases went to the grand jury and both refused to indict. There is no reason to continue with this, time to move on. Ok, their families can sue in civil court. In the end the system worked…

Well, the system did not work. There are many ways why the system did not work. They all have to do with how law enforcement treats African Americans in particular and other minorities in general. It also has to do with things like implicit bias and yes, racism.

We all like to pretend that we live in a post racial society. After all, an African American sits in the White House and he was elected not once, but twice. So things must be getting better. These statistics should offer a wake up call.

Liberal advocates of police professionalization may not have known of polling data confirming the depth of the racial divide, the fact that 49 percent of Newark’s African Americans viewed police as “too brutal” but only 5 percent of whites held this view in 1968. Polling data from 1969 documented the magnitude of the credibility gap, with 72 percent of African Americans in Watts agreeing that police frisked or searched blacks without good reason, and 81 percent of African Americans in Detroit believing that police treated some groups better than others.

While they come from a critique of policies enacted by mostly liberal democrats, and chiefly centrist blue blood democrats, this polling could have been done today. In fact, Gallup has.

Here are some relevant numbers, bear in mind this is national data, not city specific data.

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As you can see overall trust is above fifty percent. But among people of color these numbers are dismal in the low thirties.

So what else failed? Sandra Bland was stopped in a town that relies on fines to get funding. It is not just limited to the south, or Texas. We know California towns have a similar issue. In fact, California, like Ferguson, sees minorities stopped more often, and also they lose their licenses more often.

As in Ferguson, these policies disproportionately impact people of color, beginning with who gets pulled over in the first place. Recent San Diego and Sacramento data show that African-American people were two to four times more likely to get pulled over for a traffic stop than white people; Hispanic people were also disproportionately stopped and searched. In San Francisco, over 70% of people seeking legal assistance for driver’s license suspensions were African American, though African Americans make up only 6% of the city as a whole. In the broader employment context, people with African-American sounding names are significantly less likely to get job interviews than white people with the same resume.7 Existing employment barriers based on race should not be exacerbated by court policies that further deprive people of jobs and employment prospects

This is the traffic inequality that led to Sandra Bland’s traffic stop to begin with. This also leads to lack of trust among police and citizens.

An officer who was sent to a call for a person pointing a gun at other people shot Tamir Rice. His training officer placed the officer into an impossible situation tactically. And may as it may be, there is another detail, the dispatcher described Rice not as a child, but a young adult. We do know that African American boys are perceived as older, and there are studies that back this up.

According to Phillip Atiba Goff, PhD, writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection. Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”

He also wrote that dehumanization is part of this process, “This may also cause individuals to see Black children as more like adults or, more precisely, to see them as older than they are. As a result, dehumanization may reduce prohibitions against targeting children for harsh or adult treatment.”

Rice, according to the prosecutors was seen as older. Ergo he was treated immediately as a threat. So even if this was a perfect storm of errors, which is the contention of the District Attorney, the fact that African American children are seen as older than they are is also part of the problem. A white child of the same age would have given more of the benefit of a doubt. Perhaps that same child would still be alive and we would not be writing about him.

So in the report from the DA, there is an acknowledgement of this issue, though no solution to it. Implicit bias is slowly becoming a known issue in police departments. Some departments are even training for it. Time will tell if any of that helps.

There is also another aspect to this particular case. The Grand Jury found no reason to charge, but a judge found otherwise in June. He asked for the prosecutor, the same that returned a non-indictment, to charge back then.

This brings us to the other matter at hand. California has taken care of the grand jury system. No grand jury will be involved in officer-involved shootings, as we reported earlier in the year.

This is not enough. The system needs wide spread reforms. They include taking away the conflict of interest that exits between local law enforcement and local District Attorneys. Local DA’s count on police unions for endorsements during elections. They also work together day to day, so when an officer kills anybody, the DA is not particularly inclined to charge.

The province of British Columbia in Canada is experimenting with higher level investigative bodies in officer involved shootings. There are two significant things to this office. It’s director can never have served in law enforcement. They have to act independently.

Interesting enough, its first Chief Civilian Director is not even a Canadian, but an American with extensive experience in law enforcement oversight.

This is where this model offers some help. It would remove the DA from this messy relationship, and allow for a more neutral investigation. This is not an elected position either.

Be as it may, this will solve some of the procedural issues but not the underlying causes. We are not living in a post racial society, and racism is very real. These procedural solutions will only go so far, but as long as officers believe that black children look older than they are, we will have more tragedies. As long as we have more minorities than whites stopped for minor traffic violations and for frisking, we will continue to have these issues.

Civil proceedings will surely come, and the level of proof is lower in a civil court, but we also need to realize that officers do make mistakes, some of them are tragic, and some do rise to the level of criminality. It is time to realize that the system, as it exists today, has a similar level of distrust as it did in the late 1960s, The civil rights era led to changes that were welcomed, but they did not solve racism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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