The omnipresence of video cameras hasn’t restrained the impulses of violent police officers, it seems, but cameras have at least repudiated the narratives that have saved so many police from prosecution. In several cases, video footage has offered a truth that defies official justifications for savagery.
Because he was wearing a body camera that contradicted his account (stunning, yes, that he was aware he was being recorded), Ray Tensing has been charged with murder in the July death of Cincinnati motorist Samuel DuBose, whom Tensing, then a University of Cincinnati police officer, had stopped for a traffic violation. Tensing claimed that he shot DuBose because he feared for his life, but the footage doesn’t appear to show him in any danger.
Yet, the decision by Tensing’s superiors to prosecute him merely lays bare the remaining inequities in a criminal justice system that is by no means just. It is quite rare for police officers to be convicted and sent to prison for their unjustified violence, no matter the evidence against them.
(Indeed, it is still quite rare for police officers to be charged in the deaths of civilians. So far this year, 558 civilians have died at the hands of police, according to The Washington Post, which says that officers have been charged in only four cases, all of which were captured on video. In three of the cases, the victims were black, while the officers were white. In the fourth, the civilian was also white.)
Indeed, the criminal justice system is one of the last bastions of blatant racism, a pastiche of prejudices, wrongheaded stereotypes, and all-too-human assumptions. The implicit and explicit biases that color black people as dangerous and anti-social tend to let police officers, especially white officers, off the hook. Their crimes often go unpunished.
Perhaps you remember the trial of four Los Angeles cops in the brutal 1991 assault on Rodney King. Videotaped by a passer-by as they repeatedly beat and kicked a prostrate King, they were charged with assault with a deadly weapon and use of excessive force. Yet, none were convicted in a Simi Valley courtroom.
Two of the four, Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell, were later convicted after federal authorities charged them with violating King’s civil rights.
Still, U.S. District Court Judge John Davies was clearly sympathetic to the two men, saying that King had “contributed significantly to provoking the offense behavior.” While they faced up to 10 years in prison, he sentenced them to 30 months.
Now fast-forward a quarter-century. In May 2015, Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo, who is white, was acquitted of manslaughter in the 2012 deaths of an unarmed black motorist, Timothy Russell, and passenger, Malissa Williams. After other officers had ceased shooting and Russell had stopped his car — he had led the officers on a high-speed chase — Brelo jumped onto the hood of the vehicle and fired 15 shots.
The U.S. Department of Justice, by the way, considered that case when it issued a report that found the Cleveland Police Department had engaged in a long-running pattern of unnecessary force. More than 100 police officers pursued Russell’s vehicle because they believed they heard gunfire coming from the car, but Justice found it likely that the car had backfired.
Nevertheless, Cuyahoga County Judge John P. O’Donnell ruled that the “state did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant, Michael Brelo, knowingly caused the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams.” (O’Donnell presided over a bench trial — or trial without a jury.)
Law enforcement defenders would undoubtedly note that neither Rodney King nor Timothy Russell was a paragon of virtue. Both motorists failed to stop their vehicles, choosing to flee police. Their conduct was clearly wrong.
But neither King nor Russell took an oath to protect and serve. Neither man was given the badge and gun that ought to suggest a rigorous moral code and a significant degree of restraint.
In other words, police officers should be held to a higher standard of conduct. And if they behave like murderous thugs, they should be treated as such. Until they are, justice remains tantalizingly out of reach.
(Cynthia Tucker Haynes won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Photo: Pete via Flickr