Everybody from President Obama to the white mom taking dishes out of her dishwasher while glancing back at televised reports of the confusion in Ferguson, Missouri are dancing around the central issue in the police killing of black men and boys in America. That issue is the unwritten but uniformly administered code of police unaccountability.
Police departments around the county are under the illusion that their officers pay so high a price by risking their lives every minute in a very hazardous job that they deserve a closing of the ranks when one of them makes a mistake. And what is it that police departments consider mistakes?
An officer caught sleeping on the job isn’t a mistake; it a punishable infraction.
Overly aggressive interaction with a white person isn’t a mistake; it is a misjudgment because you never know who that white person may be, or who that white person may be related to, or who that white person may know, and that could bring damaging results to the department.
Taking bribes in most modern police departments is treated not as a mistake, but as a punishable offense.
The chief mistake made in any police department in America is the unprovoked shooting of young black men. Here is where police officers call in their chip for risking their lives: being paid a salary isn’t adequate compensation, American cops need the “get out of jail” card. The knowledge that a messy time will come to you when you shoot dead an unarmed black youth, but you’ll come out of it okay, makes the job worthwhile and worry-free, and better than having a job with the Mafia, or satisfying racist rage with a KKK membership, which are the mentalities many white cops identify with.
There is a long, long history of white cops receiving immunity after shooting and killing black people needlessly. Much of that history is so recent there is no need to recall it
here, but I would like to bring up what to my mind is the most egregious police killing in a long time: The 1984 shooting of Eleanor Bumpurs in New York City.
Eleanor Bumpurs was a 300-pound, 66-year-old mentally ill black woman with arthritis and diabetes. She was behind four or five months on her rent, which was less than $500, at a city housing project in the Bronx. She was issued an eviction notice that eventually was given to five police officers and a sergeant from the Emergency Service Unit to serve, all of whom were specially trained to subdue emotionally disturbed people.
The officers went to the apartment armed with bulletproof vests, restraining shields, and a shotgun to supplement their regular handguns and clubs. They drilled out the key slot to the door and saw that the woman was naked and highly agitated and frightened, holding a kitchen knife in her hand.
They busted the door down and rushed in to corner the tormented woman, trying to pin her to the wall with the restraining shield. Stephen Sullivan, the cop with the shotgun, shot the hand holding the knife, nearly severing it, and in another instant a second shot from the shotgun hit the arrears-renter in the chest fatally, serving a truly final eviction notice.
A grand jury indictment against Sullivan was thrown out in the Bronx courthouse by Vincent A. Aitale of the State Supreme Court. Later, the manslaughter indictment was reinstated by the New York Court of Appeals. Sullivan elected to have his case heard by a judge in order to sidestep a jury of his peers. If you are familiar with the demographic of the Bronx, you’ll know why the cop exercised this option.
The trial judge, Fred W. Eggert, heard the case and acquitted Sullivan of the manslaughter charge. All the cops in the killing of Eleanor Bumpurs walked. Two supervisors in the city’s Social Services administration were later demoted for failing to seek an emergency rent grant for Bumpurs and for not getting her proper psychiatric aid.
I mention this case not for its horrific details, but to illustrate how deep the problem goes into the judiciary system. Also in this case, two surgeons testifying as expert witnesses said that Bumpurs could have continued to slash at the officers who were trying to subdue her even after her hand had been injured by the first shotgun blast, even though the emergency room physician who treated Bumpurs immediately after the shooting stood by his grand jury testimony that her hand was left “a bloody stump” by the first shot. The web to immunize cops from prosecution often reaches all the way back to the medical examiner’s office.
Because the nature of this killing was vile in biracial proportions, the New York City officials, the mayor, the judiciary system, and police at all levels involved in this great miscarriage of justice will suffer the effects of bad karma until the city officially does what is necessary to right this wrong. They and their families have lived irreconcilably sad unhappy lives for the past 30 years. They will pass this dreadful karma on to generations to come for so long that it will become impossible to trace the source of the sorcery back to its origin.
How can we break the ability of police departments to pardon mistakes white killer cops make?
In the sad case of Ferguson it’s as simple as getting the majority population to the polls. Anyone out in those streets at this moment protesting but not registering black people to vote is wasting time – theirs, mine, yours, and the time of justice. The black folks of Ferguson need to organize politically to put their own people in office on the Town Council and in the mayor’s office as well as on the school boards. A Town Council that reflected the population could draw up an ordinance to revamp the police department and everything else that’s out of proportion.
This won’t be so easily done in other locations around America, but civil rights organizations should start collecting demographic data across America to identify other communities where Africa Americans are in the majority but are underrepresented in the local government, then go in to organize those people to take the power to revamp their local Town Council and police department.
Some police departments are equipping their officers with lapel cameras to record their officers’ on-duty actions. This could be a helpful tool if the police officials could be depended on to make public and hand over recorded evidence to those filing complaints against police personnel, but there are already cases where police departments have withheld video evidence that would have convicted their officers. Oversight legislation may be able to prevent this from happening in the future.
Another tool that police departments could use is to have killer cops come in to address graduating classes of police cadets. Let them tell cadets what’s been on their minds as they age and approach mortality. Let them tell how they have tried to keep the details of their case from their children and their children’s friends, and from their new neighbors when they move. Let them tell these new cadets how the events of their case replay in their minds like a bad movie in a rerun loop. Let them tell new cadets in what ways their lives changed in that instant. How their wives try desperately to assure them that they understand and have compassion for them, but their wives’ eyes say otherwise. Let the killer cops transfer their experiences to the ones not yet out in the streets.
The other thing happening is that more white citizens are realizing the immorality of these racist killings and are joining hands with black protestors. I hope that they will also join with minority voters to elect politicians who will keep a tight hold on their police departments’ rendering of justice and create a sense of fairness and transparency.
The flagrant racist reaction to protest in Ferguson was a blessing. The revelation that America’s small-town police forces have become militarized is illuminating not only to the black population, but also to the folks in charge of the country at the moment and to long-time social and political critics. Louis Farrakhan says that he told us so – that America would meet us in the streets with tanks and other weapons of war. “They are coming to kill us all,” he says. And now we see the evidence in Ferguson, and in the Defense Department’s reevaluation of its policy of selling local police departments war weapons, paid for with grant money from the U.S. Congress. Police Departments are using my tax dollars to buy tanks that I already own to come keep me in line. Not only do I have to worry about my local white militia, but now also a militarized police department.
My hands are up, don’t shoot.