If you weren’t living under a rock this morning you heard about the acquittal of three NYPD officers in the death of Sean Bell. I won’t go into incredible detail about the back story which consists of undercover officers investigating a strip club, a soon-to-be groom celebrating with friends, and depending on who you believe, a terrible melodrama involving a man going for a gun or three guys freaked out when men who didn’t identify themselves as cops came at them with guns.
The real thing I want to say is that unless there are extremely egregious circumstances it is very hard to convict a cop for doing anything. Period. And that’s ultimately the problem. Black people wouldn’t so routinely distrust these sorts of verdicts if they weren’t so common, and we’re just talking about the stuff that actually makes it to the court room, not all the times police ignore people who need help, misunderstand people, give folks attitude or the runaround, who arrest people without cause, who taser 14-year-old girls and treat every black male over the age of 12 like a potential gang banger.
And this goes beyond race. I lived in Bakersfield for five years. Not only did the police get into “questionable” situations with blacks and Mexicans, they did it over and over with white people. Bakersfield was a “law and order” town where the only version of events that mattered were the ones recalled by the officers. It was the honor system all the way. There was no shooting the review board saw as unjustified.
How could anyone expect the victims to agree this was justice when everything is stacked against them? The cops are protected by the police department which works intimately with the prosecuting attorneys to fight crime, the prosecutors are backed up by the District Attorney, the DA is backed up by city and state government who help elect and appoint the judges, so who’s on the victims side in this situation?
If they’re lucky–a half decent attorney and some local activists. And that’s when you’re lucky. And that’s no guarantee of justice.
To pretend like the judicial system is above ass-covering is incredibly naive. It’s like expecting politicians not to steal. Or the government not to go to war under false pretenses. Or expecting multinational corporations to be honest when they say, “We had no idea China was covering those toys in lead. Or that Vioxx could kill you. Honest to God.”
And too many of the public dismiss these incidents because they think it will never happen to them. People who immediately become converts when one of those bad eggs everyone in the system has been complicit in shielding opens up a can of excessive force on you. Like the female bartender pummeled by an off-duty Chicago officer. Or last year in St. Louis’ metro east, a highway patrol officer going 126 miles per hour slammed his cruiser into a couple in a SUV and a car carrying two teenage sisters, massacring the girls. Also injured, he tried to pawn it off on an alleged driver who swerved in front of him.
He reportedly tried to cover his tracks by claiming he had his siren on, but the police cruiser, like a many across the country, was equipped to turn on an internal camera the minute the lights and sirens go up. His was, oddly, off while he was in “pursuit.”
The lie worked for a while, but easily fell apart. He should go to jail, but one can never tell. Sometimes you’re held to a higher standard for having the power of holding lives in your hands. Sometimes you’re given a slight rap on the knuckles and told you’ll lose your job, but little else.
You never know as it’s hard to have faith in the system when it’s the system you’re fighting.