Watching the watchmen
This year, the issues of police violence and misconduct continued to dominate headlines, after 2014 ended with the back-to-back non-indictments of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson and NYPD police officer Daniel Pantaleo for their involvement in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The past few weeks have felt tragically similar: grand juries declined to indict in the jailhouse death of Sandra Bland or last year's shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and Baltimore police officer William G. Porter's trial for the involuntary manslaughter of Freddie Gray ended in a hung jury.
These high-profile court cases have caused many to despair about the prospects of holding police officers accountable for excessive force and other misconduct, especially when that force is used against black bodies. Ta-Nehisi Coates's bestselling book Between the World and Me is a letter to his son, in which he refers to the shooting of Tamir Rice by Cleveland police and writes:
And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.
The despair is understandable, especially when we view police accountability through the lens of criminal prosecution and punishment. Police officers charged with crimes receive the benefit of the doubt to which all defendants are entitled, and which so many accused never truly receive. While we still may have a system in which blue lives matter more than others, the activist movement for law enforcement reform is undeniable, and there have been positive developments this year.
In March, the Department of Justice found insufficient evidence that Darren Wilson committed a federal crime when he killed Michael Brown. At the same time, however, the DOJ also issued a "scathing" report about the Ferguson police department, finding that "African Americans experience disparate impact in nearly every aspect of Ferguson's law enforcement system." The DOJ also announced that it started keeping a database of deaths in police custody, embarrassed that the Washington Post and The Guardian maintained better statistics than the federal government.
Cops on trial
Although Officer Porter's jury did not vote to convict him of the manslaughter of Freddie Gray, six police officers were charged in that case "with surprising swiftness." Baltimore was not the only city to bring criminal charges against police officers for manslaughter or murder this year: Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of Laquan McDonald; North Charleston officer Michael Slager was indicted for murder in the shooting death of Walter Scott; University of Cincinnati police officer Raymond Tensing was charged with murder for shooting Samuel DuBose; two Albuquerque police officers were charged with murder for shooting James Boyd; and volunteer reserve police deputy Robert Bates was charged with manslaughter for shooting Eric Harris in the back. More police officers have been criminally charged for killing civilians in 2015 than any year in the last decade.
Most of the cases that resulted in charges involved video evidence, and police body cameras became mainstream this year. Evidence suggests that body cameras reduce violence between police and the community, but when violence does occur, police departments often withhold video from the community while allowing the involved officers to view it. Here in San Diego, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis fought to prevent the release of a private surveillance video of a shooting by an officer who forgot to turn on his own body camera, but finally released it last week. That case, in which Neal Browder shot Fridoon Rawshan Nehad, is a reminder that the police are only one of two "separate, but equally important groups." This year also shined light on the "epidemic" of prosecutorial misconduct in many parts of this country.
Law and disorder
Early in the year, Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski wrote an instant classic preface to the Georgetown Law Review titled, "Criminal Law 2.0." In that piece, Judge Kozinski debunks ten myths about the criminal legal system, including the idea that "[p]rosecutors play fair." Judge Kozinski highlighted the misconduct of the Orange County District Attorney's office in the Scott Dekraai capital murder case. Judge Thomas Goethals disqualified the entire office from prosecuting the case after Public Defender Scott Sanders uncovered evidence that police and prosecutors lied about the use of informants in that and many other cases. California passed a law explicitly authorizing this type of disqualification of prosecutors later this year.
Just this month, California state bar judge recommended a suspension for Deputy District Attorney Robert Alan Murray of Bakersfield, who falsified a transcript in a child sex abuse case to include statements the defendant did not make District Attorney Lisa Green said that Murray will keep his job as a prosecutor, and the California attorney general's office previously appealed the dismissal of the case, arguing that the misconduct was not outrageous.
Although most claims of prosecutorial misconduct involve overreaching to secure convictions, the Tamir Rice case illustrates the other end of the spectrum. The Rice family alleges that Cuyahoga County prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty tried to lose the case before the grand jury, pointing out that he released evidence to the public that was favorable to the defense. And while prosecutors in Philadelphia charged a police officer with perjury this year, it was four years after he admitted in court that he had lied under oath, and only after journalists began covering the case.
We hope for a future in which we see less police violence, less prosecutorial misconduct, and more accountability when law enforcement behaves badly. And while we have a long way to go, we agree with Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who said this year:
Change is coming. If you can’t see that, you’re blind. There is a wave in our country that is unrelenting, that will hold officers accountable.