Thursday, April 30, 2015

Criminal Justice Reform Urgent

By Tom Maertens, Vox Verax
Published in the Mankato Free Press, April 30, 2015

Most Americans immediately recognize the names Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Eric Harris and 12-year old Tamir Rice. They are all black males, and all were shot by white police officers in highly charged circumstances, provoking protests around the country.

Statistics from The Centers for Disease Control offer an overview of police use of deadly force. Between 1968 and 2011, black people were two to eight times more likely to die at the hands of law enforcement than whites. Over those 40 years, a black person was on average 4.2 times more likely to get shot and killed by a cop than a white person.

There is no comprehensive database on police killings in the US, but FBI statistics on “justifiable” police homicides show at least 400 per year. Several private databases put the figure at 1,000 to 1,100 people per year. In contrast, there were no fatal police shootings in Great Britain last year, and only eight police killings in Germany over the past two years.

Additionally, five times as many white people are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites, according to the NAACP.

We know about some killings, such as Eric Garner’s -- who died in a police chokehold -- because of smartphone cameras, surveillance cameras, and dashcams. We usually never find out how it is that healthy young men like Freddy Gray of Baltimore die in police custody, in his case, with his spine nearly completely severed.

The FBI’s record deserves skepticism, as well. From 1993 to early 2011, FBI agents shot about 150 “subjects.” FBI records obtained by The New York Times under FOIA showed that internal Bureau reviews judged every one of those shootings to be justified.

A Washington Post/Bowling Green University study concluded that “thousands” had been killed by police since 2005; 54 police officers were charged in those killings. Most of the victims were black, it found, and most of the police officers charged were white, and mostly acquited.

It also found that in about a fifth of the cases, officers either planted or destroyed evidence in an attempt to exonerate themselves. Frank Serpico, the ex-NYPD cop and whistleblower wrote recently, “Police have been setting up suspects with false testimony for decades,” by dropping a weapon next to a suspect so they could say he had threatened them. Officer Michael Slager was seen dropping his Taser (and then retrieving it) next to Walter Scott, after declaring in a radioed report, that the victim “took my Taser.”

Some of the most notorious examples of abuse were the LAPD Rampart scandal of the late ‘90s involving up to 70 corrupt officers engaged in unprovoked shootings, beatings, drug-dealing and planting evidence, particularly on black men. The Chicago PD also has a long history of abuses, including current civil rights charges involving a Homan Square “black site”: CPD officers were accused of torturing murder confessions from 200 innocent people during the 1970’s and 1980’s, which The Guardian said focused most often on the “poor, black and brown.” A later DNA examination proved that more than half the people convicted of murder in Illinois and sitting on death row were actually innocent. Historically, drug or gang task forces, unless closely supervised, can become cesspools of police corruption and human rights abuse, as the Metro Gang Strike Force did in the Twin Cities.

Without film footage, juries almost invariably side with police officers as guardians of public safety doing a sometimes dangerous job. Approximately 100 police officers are killed every year in the line of duty. But police work is not even among the ten most dangerous jobs in the US, according to TIME magazine, which lists logging, commercial fishing, roofing, iron and steel work, electrical power line work, and even garbage collecting as more dangerous.

Meanwhile, The Innocence Project has helped exonerate 329 people falsely imprisoned, using principally DNA evidence. Since 1973, 152 condemned people have been released from death row because of such efforts, according to the New York Times.

The Washington Post recently revealed one reason why thousands were wrongfully sent to prison and some may have been executed: the FBI used bogus forensic science about hair evidence for decades, which almost invariably favored the prosecution.

The shootings and abuses have prompted bipartisan Congressional calls to reform our criminal justice system, including mandating body cameras for police officers, broader sentencing reform and changes to drug laws. Such reforms are long overdue.


Blogger Tom Koch said...

Doesn't this give anyone pause when they want more government?

6:49 PM  

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