A Netflix documentary that debuted last year crystallized my conclusions about the current attack on police, policing, and the justice system as a part of “white supremacy,” and the so far successful effort by Black Lives Matter and its allies among progressives and the Democratic Party to unravel the core values of American society as part of the “solution.”
The documentary is “Trial 4,” and it tells the disturbing story of how a black Boston teenager named Sean Ellis was railroaded into serving 22 years in prison for the 1993 execution-style murder of a Boston cop. Yes, it’s a documentary, so it is hardly objective, but it is even-handed for the genre, and to this long-time Boston native, it rings true in most respects. It also brought back memories of my U.S. race relations course in college, taught by the estimable Thomas Pettigrew, which convinced me that the plight of the black community in the U.S. was probably beyond repairing.
Ellis was finally exonerated just last month, as all of his convictions were either reversed or thrown out, with prosecutors (finally) deciding not to pursue any further action against him. Presumably he will get a large settlement from the city. He deserves one.
The details of the story are best followed by seeing the program, but key points are these;
- The murdered officer, a white, Irish veteran officer, was a corrupt cop who was known on the force to be corrupt, but he was nonetheless honored in death as a paradigm of law enforcement virtue. Thousands of police officers, even from other states, came to his public funeral. The determination by his peers to find and punished the assassin who shot him five times in the face was intense.
- The law-abiding police who knew the truth about the deceased officer, John Mulligan, never made any official complaints, hewing to the so-called “blue line.” In this they mirror all professional groups: doctors, lawyers, politicians, elected officials, and of course the clergy are all reluctant to blow the whistle even though basic ethical values require it.
- Two of Mulligan’s fellow officers were running a series of illegal activities that Mulligan either was involved in or knew about, including overtime scams, planting evidence, arresting innocent black citizens and pressuring them into giving false evidence, and stealing drug money in legal and illegal searches.
- These same officers (they flank Ellis in the photo above) took control of the investigation of Mulligan’s murder, and one of them manipulated his own relative to falsely identify Ellis as being at the scene of the murder. They also intimidated Ellis’s uncle, who was on parole and was threatened with being sent back to prison, to implicate his nephew.
- Despite what looks in hindsight like huge, neon-flashing signs reading “Frame up! Frame up!,” the justice system lined up against Ellis and with the cops, even a supposedly reform-minded black District Attorney (who insisted of retrying the murder charges against Ellis after two hung juries mostly favoring acquittal) and the African American judge in the trials.
Indeed, it was the district attorneys office and the judge who engaged in the most stunning behavior. After the two officers were exposed as having manufactured evidence to convict other defendants and as acting as criminals themselves in enterprises that involved the murdered officer, Ellis’s lawyers’ motion for a new trial was opposed and rejected with the argument that there was “no evidence” that they manufactured evidence against Ellis. But if the jury had known about the record of the officers, the evidence they produced would have been inherently questionable, and dictated a “not guilty” verdict.
There is much more: as in many such cases of unjust convictions, random events and personalities lined up by pure chance to create a catastrophe. The portrayal of the two sides of the black community vs police conflict is especially frustrating. In one poignant exchange, Ellis describes why he got involved with dealing drugs as a teen. His father had abandoned the family, and his mother was seldom functional, as a crack addict. His teenage girlfriend had a fatherless baby, and he needed to buy such basics as clothes to go to school. He kept filling out applications for jobs with local businesses, but was never hired. “What are we supposed to do?” Ellis asks. “Drugs mean money. That’s what you do here.” Ellis’s indignant mother made me want to leap through the TV and strangle her by saying, more than once, “I had all these problems, so I used the crack, hoping things would be different after. But they never were.”
On the other side, a retired white Irish Boston homicide detective, obviously agreeing to appear in the documentary as a CYA exercise, kept shrugging off the corruption of his former colleagues by saying that “they may not have been perfect” but that the case against Ellis was “clean,” though it obviously wasn’t.
The main message I received from “Trial 4”, reminding me of something I already knew but had pushed to the back of my mind, is that police culture breeds corrupt cops. It has ever been thus, and I see no practical way to change it. The “solutions” being put forth by activists, Black Lives Matter and within the black community are desperate, emotional and useless. Civilization needs law enforcement: defunding police is an absurd remedy. Teaching black children that police are racist predators and are out to destroy them is both dangerous and foolish, although several blacks are interviewed in the documentary who cooperated with police only to be abused and framed. Assuming all police are racist villains is bigotry, and unfair to the likely majority of police officers who are dedicated and self-sacrificing public servants. I am friends with a career police officer who epitomizes what we want our police to be: the now-retired police chief of Fairfax and Montgomery counties, Tom Manger.
The problem that I see no solution to is this: law enforcement only works when the public and all segments of it trust the enforcers. Yet no group that is only intermittently trustworthy is trustworthy. It is comforting to write off Derek Chauvin, Timothy Loehmann (the cop who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice), and many more unfit cops as “bad apples,” but that deliberately ignores reality. Police officers, to be trustworthy, need to be far more ethically-oriented, intelligent, stable and educated than they are likely to be, and have ever been, to be competent and reliable in such a stressful, difficult job. Police officers have power, and power corrupts; it takes discipline, training, character and determination to overcome that tendency. We don’t imbue enough of the general population with those tools; why would we expect the segment of the population drawn to police work to possess them in sufficient numbers?
“Blue Bloods,” Tom Selleck’s idealized CBS drama about a New York police family, really cheats by having one of the two cop sons of Police Commissioner Selleck be a Harvard Law grad. In fact, being a police officer should require a law degree and the ability and skills to get one, but that’s impossible. Cities can’t and won’t pay for such an upgrade, and few lawyers are going to choose risking their lives on the street over six-figure starting associate salaries.
Many law enforcement officials come from the same groups and psychological mindset as criminals. I started realizing this when I was studying the history of the Old West, and it’s a trope in movie Westerns, like “True Grit.” It’s also logical, when you think about it. The term “cowboy cops” has been used a lot recently, and the term is apt. Police are likely to be relatively unsophisticated thinkers, and to regard their job as stopping the “bad guys.” This leads to the kind of law enforcement practices we see in “Trial 4” and that Orson Welles riffed on in “Touch of Evil”: once police think they have identified a crime’s perpetrator, they see their job as making sure he or she is convicted. The ends justify the means, and the Bill of Rights and the related SCOTUS rulings are just impediments to be overcome. And at some level, much of the public accepts that extreme utilitarian approach.
I wasn’t a prosecutor for long, but it was long enough to know that when Alan Dershowitz says that the police lie “all the time” to convict defendants, he’s not exaggerating by much. I had cops testifying on the stand that I suspected were shading the truth, but I couldn’t prove it, and I lacked the authority to drop the cases that hung on their testimony.
Do cops engage in unethical and illegal practices to convict black citizens more often than whites? In Boston, certainly, that wouldn’t surprise me, but even if it’s not true, does it matter? As long as cases like Sean Ellis’s happen (in another case examined in the documentary, the same two corrupt cops planted cocaine on a Dominican immigrant, used that to get a warrant to search his apartment, and stole almost $3,000 they found there) and as long as activists and race-baiting politicians can benefit from attributing the worst incidents to systemic police racism, African-American trust in the police is impossible.
Yet one of the main reasons police are so often acquitted in jury trials is that the public still trusts them, and believes they are “the good guys,” doing their best against growing odds, unappreciated, self-sacrificing, maybe crossing legal and ethical lines sometimes but only for the best of reasons. I think that belief is vital. If the public can’t believe it, the result is terror. If the public won’t believe it, the result is chaos.