The dawn of Wednesday, July 6, 2016 brought about a renewed wave of anxiety in the country as yet another black man was killed by the police under questionable circumstances. In conditions strikingly similar to that of Eric Garner, who was murdered by the Staten Island cops in 2014, the deceased, Alton Sterling, was a resident of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Cell phone footage of the incident exists in which two Baton Rouge city cops approach Sterling and it’s clear that they are preparing themselves to make physical contact with him in order to detain him on some level–be it a full arrest or a detention in the back of a squad car. A relatively quick, but violent, scuffle ensues resulting in the officers visibly having the upper hand. Sterling is knocked onto the hood of a parked car by the officers, and now the three of them are sandwiched between the same parked car and what looks to be a folding table, perhaps with merchandise on top of it. All of this happens in front of a convenience store. The cell phone camera goes down and extremely nervous chatter happens behind the camera inside of another car as sight to what’s going on is lost. First two shots. Another three. And a final shot.
There has been a “Wash. Rinse. Repeat.” cycle to the deaths of [mostly] black men at the hands of on-duty police officers across the country. Prior to the rise of Black Lives Matter in a post-Ferguson moment, the cycle was barely a cycle. It was simply that the officers were placed on administrative leave pending an investigation that would undoubtedly find them operating within their rights as an officer–usually by some shadowy bureaucratic review board that the public knows nothing about–and that was that. (Chicago had what was known as an Independent Police Review Authority (IRPA) that had been embattled under the Rahm Emanuel administration. A black supervisor, Lorenzo Davis, was fired in 2015 after he alleged he was asked to change his findings in which he found three officers were in the wrong. The chief administrator resigned in December 2015 as the Laquan McDonald shooting resulted in the chief of police resigning. Ultimately the IRPA was disbanded in May 2016.) Post-Ferguson, the “wash” cycle has usually been that either the district attorney’s office makes a grand display of announcing an investigation or the Department of Justice says that they will be investigating the case, an indictment is handed down, and the officers in question go to trial. The “rinse” cycle is where, suddenly, these black bodies were legally murdered by no one.
You see, media outlets aren’t allowed to use the word murdered in reference to when an on-duty police officer kills a civilian, instead it’s a fatal shooting. The person who was killed isn’t just a victim but specifically a fatal shooting victim. There’s a sanitized way in which police officers get special treatment that even regular civilians aren’t afforded amongst each other. When the news announces that there are 72 deaths in Chicago for the month June, the offenders are certainly referred to as killers and murderers.
Nationally, there are thousands of deaths at the hands of on-duty police officers. Many of which, given the circumstances, the regular public would probably considered justified. Only when it was clear beyond the shadow of a doubt that the officers lives were at risk. But out of these thousands of murders, only a small handful go to trial. In both 2015 and 2014, out of that small handful that go to trial, not one single officer was convicted. Only 13 officers have been convicted of either homicide or manslaughter since 2005.
Irrespective of race, socio-economic status and geographic location, with a number that low, police officers have a license to kill. With death at the hands of the police nationally numbering in the thousands each year, from 2005 to 2015 only 54 police officers were even indicted.
Prosecutors already know this statistic and probably dread walking into work the next day figuring out which charge needs to be issued so that they can best argue for a conviction at a trial. District attorneys know the court of public opinion will force them to move forward with an indictment if cell phone camera footage exists, if the victim was found to be unarmed and certainly if the victim was shot in the back. That’s their only hope for a conviction. Outside of that, it’s clear that juries aren’t overly interested in convicting cops. Or that benches that are willing to draw a fine point on the law for the sake of being judicial masochists to a public clearly in pain.
In a rare swift move of justice, an indictment was handed to University of Cincinnati office Ray Tensing who shot Samuel DuBose in the head in a traffic stop. He awaits trial for October 2016. Only after dashcam footage released by the Chicago Police Department did the state’s attorney file full-fledged first degree murder charges against the cop who pulled the trigger 16 times into the back of 16-year-old Laquan McDonald on Chicago’s west side. The public smelled a cover-up between the mayor’s office–which included the chief of police–and the state’s attorney’s office in which all had attempted to suppress the tape being released. Mounting public pressure resulted in the resignation of the chief of police and the state’s attorney being voted out of office.
Even on the surface, with the most naive lens that one could muster, America’s obsession with guns has brought us to this point. Our culture thrives off of a pornography of violence. From cartoons at an early age–Elmer Fudd with a double barrel and Wile E. Coyote with ACME dynamite–to just about any American movie that wasn’t a comedy, the use of guns is present. We secretly hope and wish that the good guys get a gun and hopefully have a bigger one. And our fascination with the western movie genre shows us that “the west was won” by shooting first, shooting some more, shoot again to make sure no one is left to ask any questions.
Chicago, my hometown, under much scrutiny since Obama was elected, saw their murder numbers drop to 472 in 2015–still higher than Los Angeles and New York. And of the 472 persons killed, effectively 349 were murdered by no one. There was only a 26% clearance rate where the murderer was arrested and charges filed–the general definition of what allows a homicide to be cleared. Of the 123 that were cleared, 67 were considered “cleared exceptionally” meaning that the police and state’s attorney know who the offender is but one of the following happened 1) the state’s attorney didn’t have enough evidence to convict, 2) witnesses failed to testify because “no snitching” is a policy in these communities, 3) the offender is dead.
Perhaps being murdered by no one is more common than we think. Based on these statistics, it seems as though there is a preponderance of person’s who are simply murdered by no one. Even as we watch the case of the Baltimore City police officers one by one escape conviction, legally one would have to draw the conclusion that Freddie Gray damaged his own spinal cord and no negligent behavior or unlawful arrests took place on behalf of the officers. Who killed Freddie Gray? No one murdered him, of course.
I don’t have a neat and cute solution to any of this. Perhaps if I did, I’d sell it to the White House, make Obama institute it and be set for life. Police officers need to be liberated to do their job, and ought not be congratulated when they do it–that’s what they’re paid to do. Ultimately, our justice system needs to be liberated to allow for massive police reform. The “rogue cop” and “a coupla bad apples” narrative was debunked by 2015 as it was clear the police departments across the country were engaging in use of excessive force with reckless abandon. In the era of cell phone cameras, it’s clear that there is a deep-seated culture of sheltering cops who are corrupt beyond measure and a culture of endangerment of cops who don’t toe the line. What’s insidious about that is that the cops who want to do better and attempt to better have about as much recourse as Quinyetta McMillon does right now: absolutely none.
The social media pit for storing hashtagged names of those murdered by no one is bottomless. The digital space needed to warehouse the new Wikipedia entry for yet another murdered black man at the hands of a police office is endless. As a country, we have to wonder is our appetite for offender-less crime equally as infinite. In America, when you are murdered by no one, the answer is simply to wash, rinse and repeat.
Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL