Monday, December 1, 2014

New York Anxiously Awaits Another Grand Jury Decision

December 8th cover
illustration by Bob Staake.
Life is nothing like “Law & Order” or any other televised police/judicial procedural enjoyed by millions. Those stories may be promoted as “ripped-from-the-headlines,” but dramatic license commonly makes them appealing and engaging.
Besides, comparable true life scenarios tend to be more alarming and distressing and rarely have satisfying conclusions.
That is what recently occurred in Ferguson, Missouri. That story is still in progress and, if there’s an alternate ending somewhere down the road, it is likely to be as frustrating and divisive as last week’s grand jury results.
According to published accounts, the St. Louis report contains conflicting testimony from Police Officer Darren Wilson, which contradicts what the prosecutor told the media at last week’s news conference about how inconsistent eyewitness accounts led to the non-indictment. To those disappointed by that conclusion, it appears the officer’s inconsistent account was adequate, while eyewitnesses were not.
Consequently, the grand jury’s failure to indict is flawed.
One particular portion of the testimony reveals that a sergeant told Wilson to leave the scene of the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown and wait at the police station. Upon arriving, Wilson testified, he went into the bathroom and washed Brown’s blood off of both his hands and placed his recently fired pistol into an evidence bag himself. According to his attorney, Wilson cleaned his hands because the blood was “was getting sticky and uncomfortable.”
Those actions, according to experts and Justice Department documents, violate the standard procedure for handling a crime scene and securing evidence.
 After the Ferguson ruling, President Obama stated, “We are a nation built on the rule of law.” Grand juries indict, or not, in accordance with the facts presented. But, too often, when it comes to police altercations with unarmed suspects that rule of law seems to favor law enforcement.
In a few words, the president also underscored the status quo of America’s race relations, when he said, “…the frustrations that we’ve seen are not just about a particular incident. They have deep roots in many communities of color who have a sense that our laws are not always being enforced uniformly or fairly.”
The anger and frustration following the November 24th announcement may have been triggered by this case, but it has been gradually mounting for some time. The F.B.I. reported 461 homicides by police officers last year, the most in two decades. Young black men are 21 times more likely to be among that number than young white men, according to ProPublica (an independent news organization whose mission is “to produce investigative journalism in the public interest”). But even when innocent suspects are killed, officers are seldom charged.
Does the infrequency with which police officers are held criminally liable in shootings show they are held to a lower standard, or do they face too much criticism in such events?
As protestors rioted in Ferguson, following the prosecutor’s announcement, the Brown family admonished those who committed senseless violence and vandalism. Beyond Ferguson, opponents of the non-indictment vented their rage, desperation and yearning for justice with mostly peaceful marches, including a few in Manhattan. However, some protests got out of hand when they were reportedly supplemented by external agitators and troublemakers. 
While I empathize with the anger and frustration of those who dispute the St. Louis decision, it baffles me why some demonstrators destroy and vandalize local businesses and property that have nothing whatsoever to do with the escalating fury.
A week after the grand jury decision, and the weekend resignation of Officer Wilson, protests continue to plague Ferguson and the nation.
Like Ferguson, Missouri, New York City has had its share of headlines involving unarmed black men killed, unjustly treated or targeted by overzealous police officers. Seventeen years ago, Abner Louima was mistaken for someone who’d punched a police officer outside a Brooklyn nightclub. He was arrested, beaten with fists, as well as with police radios, flashlights, and night sticks, and then sexually assaulted with a wooden object inside a precinct bathroom. In 1999, Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant, was killed in a hail of forty-one shots. He was hit by 19 of them, as he retrieved his wallet from his pocket. A year later, Patrick Dorismond died trying to convince undercover cops he was not a drug dealer. The day of his wedding, in 2006, Sean Bell was killed in his car, which police officers shot at fifty times.
It would seem that after so many of these types of incidents, police procedures and protocols deserve scrutiny and, possibly, changes in dealing with unarmed suspects. Perhaps, in some situations, the use of a Taser, not a deadly weapon, would be sufficient to subdue a suspect and save a life.
New York City awaits the conclusion of an investigation into the death of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died of a heart attack, last July, while an NYPD officer had him in a chokehold after he was stopped for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. We can only hope that decision is more objective than the one for Michael Brown, because, if it isn’t, the consequences for this city could be dreadful.
NYPD officers subdue Eric Garner.AP photos by John Minchillo
Though many may not fully understand the intricacies of the criminal justice system, the conclusion in St. Louis, nonetheless, challenges the American conception and preconceived notion of justice. And, after reading bits of the testimony and the evidence presented to the St. Louis grand jury, the outcome seems to be flush with flaws.
This holiday season, there’s little about events in Ferguson  from the killing of Michael Brown to the controversial grand jury decision  for which we can be thankful.
With holiday shopping on many New Yorkers’ minds, others anxiously await the grand jury’s decision in the Eric Garner case. Let’s hope the fury of Ferguson doesn’t become the shame of Staten Island and sidetrack us from seasonal good will.