Nobody should doubt that there are too many instances of excessive police force, that racism must playsa factor in many of these episodes, and that prosecutors and juries give police special, and perhaps excessively generous, consideration when cases of alleged abuse come to trial. The sheer numbers compel that concludion. However, the now routine presumption on the part of civil rights activists, much of the news media and Obama racially-biased Justice Department that every instance where an unarmed African American is killed by a police officer warrants indictment and conviction is as pernicious as racism itself, and threatens the rule of law as well as any semblance of peaceful race relations.
Every incident is not like the Walter Scott shooting in South Carolina, where the police officer’s actions were unequivocally homicidal, but the news media seems to blur the lines as much as it can. In the current controversy out of Cleveland, police officer Michael Brelo’s acquittal of murder charges was announced with headlines resembling Slate’s “Cleveland Police Officer Acquitted for Firing 15 Shots That Killed Unarmed Black Couple,” which makes it sound as if Brelo personally executed the Huxtables while they were taking a Sunday drive. “Cleveland Police Officer Acquitted for Firing 15 Shots out of 137 That Killed Two Mentally-Ill, Homeless Addicts Under The Influence of Drugs Who Fled A Lawful Police Stop And Were Credibly Believed to Have Discharged A Firearm” would have been lengthy, but also would have been fair rather than deceitful.
The acquittal came because there was no way to determine for certain that Brelo’s shots were the ones that killed the couple. Nor were the Cleveland officers’ presumption that deadly force was necessary unreasonable. Police had been informed that shots had been fired from the car (they turned out to be backfires from the auto), and the driver had certainly exhibited reckless conduct. Was it necessary for Brelo to jump up on the hood of the car after multiple shots had been fired into it by other officers (the chase involved over 60 police cars)? Were more shots fired by all concerned than necessary? Maybe and almost certainly, but neither of those facts add up to guilt for the officer, or justification for another “Hand up, Don’t shoot!” protest. Officers didn’t know the occupants of the fleeing car were unarmed, and had reason to think they were armed. They didn’t know they were a “couple,” or African American, or mentally ill.
Never mind; African American protesters are demonstrating, protesting and getting arrested in Cleveland anyway. I doubt that the protestors know the facts of the incident; all that matters is that two blacks were killed by police, and that alone is enough to turn them into Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner…and Walter Scott. Such reflex outrage distracts from the power of protest when real injustice has occurred, or real racism, or actual refusal of a jury to convict when there is sufficient evidence. Drug-impaired schizophrenics who endanger the public by fleeing police in an automobile have plotted their own demise, and no police officer should lose his freedom because a car backfires. No matter how many protests and riots there are, courts and juries still will have to use the principles of justice to determine guilt. All the political pressure generated by such protests will accomplish is occasional unethical prosecutions by prosecutors, like Maryland state’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who don’t have the integrity to ignore the mob.
It is irresponsible and dishonest to force these perfect storms of bad luck, mistakes and dubious decisions under stress into the template of “white officers maliciously shoots unarmed black” for political leverage. It is particularly wrong for the Justice Department to encourage it, as this one has. The urgent need to find some standard by which genuine police misconduct can be identified and punished is neither advanced nor supported by concluding that every time an unarmed African-American dies in an encounter with police, it is a racist murder. The assumption, no matter what the statistics show, must always be the opposite, and the facts of the encounter matter, besides the races of the shooter and the shot. The wrongful actions of police officers elsewhere should never strip an individual officer like Brelo of the recognition of the special peril facing police every day, and the benefit of the doubt.