When They See Us

Police brutality. We throw around that phrase but have very different beliefs about where the problem comes from.

I was driving home from work recently and on the radio was listening to how the Phoenix police force threatened a family, including a pregnant mother with two young children for shoplifting from a dollar store. The video has gone viral. The family is suing the Phx Dept. for $10 million. The video can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=298&v=w3EZIth8koI. While they did hold a public hearing after the incident, the man being interviewed on the radio, whose official positions I didn’t catch, but who has been part of the PD for years, called ALL the officers involved in the incident ‘a few bad apples.’ For more on that, and other incidents involving Phoenix police, see this article: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/06/27/this-city-led-us-police-shootings-last-year-after-viral-video-tensions-are-boiling-over/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.6ad29bc53388.

A few salient points from the article,

1) “The shooting surge in Phoenix — police fired their weapons 44 times last year, well above the average of 21 shootings per year during the previous decade — disproportionately affected black residents. They make up 7 percent of the city’s population, but represented 20 percent of those shot by police in 2018.”

2) “Advocates say their calls for reforms in recent years have not been heeded, including the creation of a civilian review board to oversee police misconduct issues and improvement of department diversity. About 72 percent of the department is white in a city where white residents make up 43 percent of the population. Only 20 percent of officers are Latino, compared to 42 percent of residents, according to census data.”

3) “Daniel Garcia, who served as Phoenix police chief from 2012 to 2014, said he tried to focus on disciplinary procedures during his tenure but struggled with the police union, which organized a no-confidence vote against him. The five-person disciplinary review board, which is appointed by the City Council, routinely overturned his decision to fire or discipline officers, he said.”

What emerges is an institution that is disproportionate ethnically, in which there are little to no repercussions for misuse of the badge, and in which a police union protects officers from disciplinary measures. This does not mean there are no good officers. The rollout of the body camera program is hopeful, but since it is so limited in distribution, not a significant check on brutality.

So what actually qualifies police brutality? There’s a legal definition of ‘excessive use of force’ as that that goes beyond what’s necessary and proportionate to defuse the situation. In the video above, the bystanders with the cameras seem to know that better than the cops. Instead of defusing, the officers escalate. However, the terms are hazy. An officer only needs to have probable cause to believe that someone is posing a physical threat to the officer or others. That can be reaching for something in the passenger seat. This is one reason why officers are protected. They can claim they sensed a threatening movement/gesture. We see this over and over again. But there’s also something called ‘qualified immunity’ that protects an officer from being sued if the courts determine that they were not violating a clearly established constitutional right such as the right to remain silent.

On excessive force definitions: https://criminal.findlaw.com/criminal-procedure/excessive-force-and-police-brutality.html.

On why police are prosecuted and incarcerated at very low rates compared with the rest of the population:https://www.vox.com/identities/2016/8/13/17938234/police-shootings-killings-prosecutions-court.

This leads me to what has led me to investigate some of this: I was needlessly stopped by police a few weeks ago while parked outside of a gas station. It was clear there was either a crime or some sort of illegal activity going on at the station because there were multiple squad cars parked and a few parking spaces were sectioned off with police tape. The officer asked to see my license and car insurance. I showed him my license but was having trouble finding my insurance, at which point he called to another officer “Come over here and bring the car!.” It’s what they would do in preparation for making an arrest. He then asked me if I had any weapons in the car, and then pointed to a mason jar I keep spare change in and asked: “What’s in there? Do you have any drugs?” I answered “No". I could have not answered any of these questions according to my 5th amendment right, but I figured it would be easier to comply and get me home faster. The other officer made it over to my car and they both turned on flashlights and shined them through the windows, clearly looking for something. This too is illegal unless they have probable cause. Being parked outside a gas station where there is criminal activity is not probable cause.

I related this story because elements of it are connected to the show ‘When They See Us’, which is the story of the wrongful conviction of five black and latino teenage boys in assault and rape of Trisha Miley. That case happened in 1989 in New York City, a hub of gang and criminal activity, but because recent incidents parallel what happened then, it’s important to look at the origin of the U.S. police force.

This article does a good job of laying it out https://time.com/4779112/police-history-origins/. What’s clear is that a metropolitan modern day police department did not exist until 1829, and the U.S. was the first country to institute one. Since its origin, it has gone through various forms, not all of which look like our modern day version. However, it’s illuminating to track its progression because up until recently, around 1929, party and politically controlled versions dominated the scene. The precursors were night watches in the North (civilians volunteered to monitor criminal activity, even though these watches were filled with criminals, drunks, and unwilling citizens), and slave patrols in the South (military or vigilante groups that chased down runaway slaves and prevented slave revolts - like the Ku Kux Klan).

How does this relate to ‘When They See Us’? Well, the questioning of the five boys happens at a police station and is manipulated by police officers. The boys are detained for hours upon hours without food or water, and coerced into framing each other under the promise of going home free. What’s evident is that they’re setting up these boys against each other and they video the testimonies to be used in court. It makes me question police accountability. We can videotape police brutality on the streets, but we can’t watch a private interrogation deep in a police station. It also makes me understand how the police department is still linked to state interests. It has a reputation to maintain. A police department’s funding comes mainly from taxes, but also from municipal and federal grants. Every grant has an application. And every application has to list the effectiveness of the department, including criminals convicted and cases solved. Not only that, but the case of the Central Park Five went high-profile very quickly, thanks to a series of newspaper advertisements taken out by Donald Trump advocating the death penalty in relation to this case.

Ava Duvernay, director of ‘When They See Us,’ makes clear that she wants to not only drive home the innocence of these boys, she wants to make a statement about what it’s like to be a black or latino boy in America. It’s a nation where ethnic minorities, especially blacks and latinos, are assumed guilty until proven innocent. That’s the basic premise of the show, I believe. And there’s actual numbers to back this up. Look for instance at the number of wrongful convictions of the black population (47%) in relation to its percentage of the population in total (16%) in 2016. And those are only taking into account exonerations. According to best estimates, 4 out of 100 inmates are wrongly convicted in 2016, but only 2 of those end up getting exonerated. All that information is here: https://time.com/wrongly-convicted/.

Add to that other statistics from the Justice Department. “The Justice Department, for example, released a study in 2015 that found black men received roughly 5% to 10% longer prison sentences than white men for similar crimes.” Obviously racial bias still exists not only in our police force, but in our courts. This post is an outcry — like ‘When They See Us.’ Innocent lives are being wasted because of this bias.

Methods have been instituted such as ‘second glance’ measures and legal organizations have sprung up to confront wrongful convictions, such as the Innocence Project. Their website is here: https://www.innocenceproject.org/.

I do not have answers for how to put a stop to racial bias. Apparently anti-bias trainings are becoming more widespread among police departments, which is all to the good. In general, I know wrongful convictions often come about when cases are rushed through the courts with little evidence, but also the presentation of possible suspects matters. What I do know, is that we, as citizens have to educate ourselves first. Instead of just watching a series like ‘When They See Us’ and looking at it as a problem that existed in 1989, we have to be aware that this still goes on. The reforms have made a difference.

“The number of exonerations has generally increased since 1989, the first year in the National Registry’s database. There are 2,000 individual exonerations listed in the registry as of March 6.

Experts say the increase in rate of exonerations can be explained, in part, by a growing trend of accountability in prosecutorial offices around the country. Twenty-nine counties, including Chicago’s Cook County, Dallas County and Brooklyn’s Kings County have adopted second-look procedures and special review units that are tasked with looking into questionable convictions.”

I would posit, and this also backed by evidence, that it starts with who are considered suspects in the first place. Cases like the shooting of Laquan McDonald and Treyvon Martin highlight this. In both cases, when a crime was reported, cops moved in to the area looking for suspects, and they targeted innocent people based on activity, racial profile, and location, but instead of following proper tactics, they assume they have the suspect in question simply because ‘young black males are more likely to commit crime.’

Here is some research comparing how blacks and whites in America view how blacks are treated, both by police and in general: https://www.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/FT_19.04.09_Race_KeyTakeaways_Whitesandblacksdiffer.png?w=640.

The discrepancies in view hold in many different areas. If you are interested in seeing more poll responses in regard to race relations, follow this link: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/09/key-findings-on-americans-views-of-race-in-2019/.

If you’d like to take an implicit bias test, you can do that here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/. Obviously, its very hard to measure implicit bias, and sometimes even harder to measure institutional bias, but I sincerely hope that series like ‘When They See Us’ continue to spark national outrage over clear injustices toward ethnic minorities, and we have to ask ourselves deep questions of our law enforcement agencies, not just assume that they are just.

Also to satisfy further curiosity, you can read dialogues of the original Central Park Five with their on screen counter-parts: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/30/arts/television/when-they-see-us.html.

Andrew ManningComment