The recent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and around the country in response to the rash of police-involved homicides of unarmed citizens are the latest incarnation of a vibrant American tradition: if we don’t like something that’s going on in our society, we take it to the streets.
The origins of this can be traced back to the Boston Tea Party, which happened on this date, December 16, in 1773. Protests continued with women demanding the right to vote in 1913. The 1960’s were crackling with anti-war and civil rights marches. More recently, Occupy Wall Street called out income inequality. And now, citizens are protesting the killing of their neighbors, family members, and fellow citizens by law enforcement officers.
The one thing that seems to be lost in the recent social media storm is the communication of articulate, specific demands that citizens want lawmakers to initiate in order to change the way things are now. This is the hard work of progress: “We think there is injustice, and here is what we want you to do, as our elected or appointed representatives, to correct it.”
The rage expressed by protesters is understandable: unarmed citizens are dying and those involved in these homicides seem to sidestep the normal judicial process of assessing responsibility for their actions.
This is due, it appears to many, to the cooperative, and some say cozy, working relationship that prosecutors in local district attorneys’ offices around the country have with police departments. They work in tandem most of the time to convict people of crimes. But what happens when a police officer is involved in what may be a crime? What happens is the appearance of favoritism and special treatment, and what results is the appearance of injustice. And make no mistake, in a democracy we most not only have justice, we must have the appearance of justice as well.
It is impossible and illogical to believe that a district attorney’s office that works daily in cooperation with a police department can be expected to be objective in presenting evidence to a grand jury against a police officer of that same department.
It is time to change the way this part of our judicial system works, and it is the responsibility of protesters, civil rights leaders, and lawmakers to do the hard work: demand legislation which affects the change we want to see in our world.
In addition to all police officers wearing video cameras while on duty, that legislation might read something like this:
When there is an officer-involved shooting in a local municipality, the local police department and local district attorney’s office will be immediately prohibited from conducting an investigation of the crime scene or interviewing witnesses.
Instead, a newly-created and wholly independent regional or federal Special Prosecutor with no ties to the local police department or local district attorney’s office will be appointed to use its agents to secure the crime scene, gather evidence and testimony, and make arrests as necessary.
Regardless of the strength or weakness of evidence or testimony obtained by the Special Prosecutor, all cases of officer-involving shootings will go to a Special Jury Trial, and all evidence and testimony pertaining to such cases will be made public.
The members of the Special Jury will also be required to provide a Statement of Findings, explaining their verdict based on the interpretation of evidence and application of the law. This will also be made public. If the Statement is found lacking, an appeal process may be initiated by the Special Prosecutor or the defense counsel. (This will discourage local juries from giving local law enforcement a pass, just because they’re local. It will also discourage vigilante-ism by juries, just because a police officer is involved.)
If the victim of an officer-involved homicide was determined to be unarmed at the time of the shooting, regardless of whether or not the officer or officers involved are found guilty of a crime, the family of that victim will be entitled to receive a compensation in the amount of $1 million, payable by the police department’s municipality. (Hitting City Hall in the pocketbook is a great motivator for reform.)
These proposed reforms will help citizens who feel victimized by their local police. It will also help the district attorney’s offices around the country to continue to do their job in convicting real criminals. And finally, it will help honest, reasonable, hard-working police officers do their job, hopefully with new-found support from the people they protect. And make no mistake, they have an impossible job that most do admirably under difficult circumstances.
But, as I’ve said, to get reforms implemented and transformed into legislation and law, we must communicate specific demands to our public officials. We also have to be fair and not paint all law enforcement officers with the same brush.
A Special Prosecutor for police-involved shootings is a straightforward, logical step in our efforts to honor that part of our commitment: “…and justice for all.”
Take it to the streets. Peacefully.