Robert Branch and the Justice System

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Analysis by Reporting San Diego

June 27, 2018 (San Diego) The criminal case against Robert Branch was filed after he filed a civil rights case in Federal Court. This was not an accident. Moreover, when Branch stated that if there was no video, he likely would have been convicted, he is correct. There is a bias, unconscious and all, from society.

First off, as a society, we tend to believe law enforcement. Given that in the same week we saw yet two more police officers walk free after shooting African Americans at traffic stops, never mind there was video evidence showing poor tactics and poor procedure. Yet juries were either deadlocked or found an officer not guilty.

This is hardly accidental, why the Branch case is still the exception. We must credit the very aggressive defense for this. Branch had an extremely talented lawyer at his side.

So we must look at this clearly and without emotion. As a society, the Branch trial proves we can reach just decisions. However, it is still the exception. Philando Castillo was shot dead, for the mere fact that he informed the officer that he was legally carrying a concealed weapon. He was allowed, by law, to carry this weapon. He had to inform the officer that he had that weapon. The officer stated that he feared for his life because of the smell of marijuana. He was also found not guilty. However, at no time was Castille a thread to the officer.

Yes, he was armed. However, the National Rifle Association (NRA) also remained quiet in this case. Why? There are solid reasons for the NRA to remain quiet and they have nothing to do with constitutional rights. Just like officers fear black men and think that 12-year-olds are grown up men, the NRA fears armed black men. It is part of the institutional racism that pervades our society.
Then there is the case of Sylville Smith, when the officer was charged with using excessive force and still found not guilty. In this case, the added that former officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown was also black.

And as if to prove the point that there is bias in policing, we now have data on police implicit bias, not just in San Diego, but across the country. The Open Policing Project from Stanford University reveals that “Data from 20 states, comprising more than 60 million state patrol stops, are sufficiently detailed to facilitate rigorous statistical analysis. The result? The project has found significant racial disparities in policing. These disparities can occur for many reasons: differences in driving behavior, to name one. But, in some cases, we find evidence that bias also plays a role.”

 

They also found that some of those disparities were reduced when Colorado and Washington State legalized the use of recreational marijuana. This is one causes for searches. But, they did “find that minority drivers are more likely than whites to undergo consent searches in the seven states for which we have reliable data (Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina, Texas, and Washington); controlling for stop location, date and time, and driver age and gender, we find that black drivers have 2.2 times the odds of whites and Hispanic drivers have 1.9 times the odds of whites of undergoing a consent search.”

The polite way we as a society call this is implicit bias. However, we need to ask how much of this is just old fashioned racism and a carceral system that puts many more black and brown people behind bars? How much of this is the revival of a system meant to keep people under state control? Jim Crow was dismantled over the course of the civil rights movement. However, the attitudes that allowed the system to survive are not gone. They survive, under the surface.

We also live in a society that is extremely segregated. Therefore, those who live north of Interstate 8 in San Diego (and are white) can fully ignore what is happening south of the 8. In fact, most people do. San Diego is not the exception. In a paradox that will have political effects, the more diverse the city, the more segregated it is.

Gentrification is not helping the issue either.

 

However, there are moments when the system either does not work as intended or shows the promise that it is capable of change. In this, your views may vary. The Branch case is one of those moments. The video was critical in this case. If there had been no video, Branch would have joined the millions that serve time, or are under state control. Worst case, Branch could have been one more statistic, one more hashtag on Twitter.

Juries do make mistakes, but when Juries find officers not guilty time and time again, in spite of video evidence that presumably shows problems, we must ask if there is more to the story?

The Stanford study is but the latest in increasing evidence that there is. We know that a 12-year-old child, like Tamir Rice, with a toy gun, has a good chance of getting shot or harassed if he is black. Literally, boys are not allowed to be boys if they are not white.

Much of this is internalized as we all grow up. Going to a diverse school can help students see their counterparts as equal, not some exotic dangerous thing they see on TV. But also living in diverse communities that are not separated by lines of poverty, or originally red lined helps.

We could start by being aware that police officers will tend to stop people at higher rates for fix tickets if they are black or brown. We must stop the denial that exists regarding this. The evidence is out there. Police departments, and especially police brass, must stop with the denials. We need policies and training that address this issue, from the raw cadet on their first day at the Academy, all the way to police chiefs.

We must also stop assuming that most crime is committed by people of color. Or that we live in a very dangerous time. We don’t. Crime rates are the lowest since the 1990s. They, in fact, peaked in 1992. What happened to Branch was road rage and contempt of cop. Both are very dangerous combinations with officers of the law. However, given both local and national stop data, we must also ask the very uncomfortable question, if that event would have gone the way it did if Branch was white?

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