Wednesday, December 03, 2014


On her Facebook page, nestled between a link to a promotional video for a gender equality project and a New York Times article about the discovery of a Shakespeare folio in a library in Calais, France, my daughter posted a link to the NPR story about the decision by a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri to not indict a police officer for killing an unarmed teenager. Her comment: "This is terrifying."

This is how I learned of the decision, one that obviously brings no closure on this issue for anyone. It appears that the only court that will try this case is the court of public opinion. It's a case at the crossroads of so many of the challenges our nation faces: race, police brutality, poverty, class, and a government that too often appears completely detached from the dream of transparency and self-governance. I've known I was going to write again about this for two weeks, but found myself too emotional to put my thoughts into words. I've been reading almost continuously, however. I'm not sure what I've been looking for: I guess something beyond "terrifying."

And it is terrifying. A teenage boy wound up dead at the hands of a police officer for the crime of jaywalking. I don't doubt that he lipped off. Some assert that he assaulted or attacked the officer. Maybe he did. The police say he was 35 feet away from the officer when he was shot to death. Others say it was more like 150 feet away. It could have been either or somewhere in between. No one disputes that the cop unloaded his entire weapon into the boy. Some say the teen had his hands up in surrender. Maybe he did. Some say the officer escalated the situation through his behavior and language. Some say the boy turned into a "demon." Maybe he did. Some say the cop is a racist. Maybe he is.

Of course, no one will ever know the answers to any of this because the grand jury decided there wasn't enough evidence to move forward with a trail. That's what's terrifying. I have questions. You have questions. If you don't have questions, I would love to know from where you get your certainty. That's what trials are for: answering questions and there are always going to be a lot of them when a jaywalking teen winds up dead at the hands of a cop. When we don't answer those questions, in public, on the record, according to the laws of evidence, we wind up with what we have now: people protesting, rioting even; accusations of police brutality, racism; people divided, taking sides, name-calling. A trial wouldn't have avoided all of that, but we could have all seen the evidence, we could have had witnesses questioned, under oath, and then cross-examined. That's the way a legal system is supposed to work in a democracy. It's terrifying because our police are rarely held to account. It's terrifying because there is so little transparency.

And the next cycle is already beginning as a Cleveland police officer has killed a 12-year-old boy playing with a toy gun. This time there is heart-wrenching video. The boy was shot within one second of the police arriving on the scene. It appears there is no way for the officer to avoid a trial on this one, but I'm not holding my breath.

In my role as an activist and protester, I've spoken with many officers. Invariably, they will evoke the "bad apple" metaphor, insisting that they are all being smeared by a few guys. None of them, it seems, know the origins of that metaphor. It comes from the expression "One bad apple spoils the bunch." And right now, for many of us, that's what's happening. Because of the famous "blue wall," the reluctance of the police to police their own, I find myself suspecting them all. That is terrifying.

Much of the conversation around this story has been about race. There have been dozens of stories in the news recently about apparently innocent black men winding up dead at the hands of police. I say apparently because we never get trials to learn the truth, which again, leaves us with nothing but the court of public opinion. If you talk to officers, they will tell you their job is dangerous, that the shootings were justified, that they do not see color as they do their jobs. If you talk to black men, you hear that this has been going on forever, that black people are regularly targeted, harassed, beaten and killed by the police.

I'm not a cop nor a black man, so I'll really never know, but I'm terrified. And, when I ask myself honestly, I'm far more terrified these days of the police than just about anything else. I'm terrified for my teenage daughter and her friends, many of whom are 18-year-old boys, some of color, just like the boy who was killed in Ferguson. And like all 18-year-olds, some of them, sometimes, do stupid things for which they do not deserve to die. I'm terrified for the children I teach, especially those of color, who are growing up in a world when they may not be able to trust these public servants.

What should I do? What should we do?

Many are calling for a federal law that would require all cops to wear body cameras that record all of their interactions with the public. Others are calling for better training in the use of non-lethal force, things like tasers and shooting to wound rather than kill. Some think it will help to de-militarize our police under the belief that taking away the tanks, body armor, and machine guns in the hope that it will lead to less of a "them vs. us" mentality. And I don't think anyone doubts that cops need better training in how to de-escalate tense situations. All of that might help, over time, if applied consistently, and if it really does lead to a reduction in these kinds of terrifying incidents.

But we all know that none of this will be enough. The core challenge is that there are entire communities, mostly of color, who have come to fear, and rightly so, the people responsible for serving and protecting them. And, in turn, there are cops who fear the people they are sworn to serve and protect, so much so that they see 18-year-old boys as "demons."

It's quite clear that what happens next is in the hands of law enforcement. They are the ones with training. They are the ones who took an oath. They are the public servants. In my ideal world the good apples would take the lead, remove the bad apples, and reach out in goodwill to the communities they serve, to treat them as partners rather than enemies, to show themselves as human, to demonstrate that they are good guys who care. And it would be best if it happened spontaneously as a genuine grassroots movement within law enforcement. I am certain that most cops of conscience go home at night these days and think about these things. I want to believe that this is true for most cops. It's time for those guys to take the lead.

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Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing about this, and specifically writing this response.

Jeff said...

Hi Tom

Are you familiar with civil forfeiture? Another example of sickening police corruption in the USA.

Anonymous said...

The answer is not just in the hands of law enforcement. The justice system is failing. In Australia or the UK there could be an independent body investigating and a public coronial inquest at which the family of the deceased is legally represented and able to ask questions. The grand jury system with a prosecutor playing to lose is not up to the job.

Unknown said...

Your call to action for the good people within the organizations to step up is right on the spot. Relationship building has to begin to restore honor, trust, and the mission. I think of the Reggio big questions about view of the child and view of the teacher. The police need to ask hard questions about how they view their roles and how they view those they have commited to serve and protect. It must start here.

Mark said...

I didn't come to your blog to read about this, but boy you hit it right on the head with your every word.Thank you