Thu | Jan 24, 2019

Police violence and failures of justice

Published:Saturday | December 6, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Police violence and failures of justice

The justice system in America is being held up to ridicule around the world in light of how it continues to treat police killings of unarmed black men.

Recent grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City have sparked waves of protest and triggered nationwide outrage, reigniting racial tensions which were lit half a century ago and remained simmering.

In July, Eric Garner, father of six, was accosted by police for selling loose cigarettes. He was tackled to the ground and strangled with a chokehold, while gasping for breath from his asthmatic lungs.

Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, was shot dead in Ferguson on August 9 in disputed circumstances when police accosted him and his friend for jaywalking.

On Tuesday night, too, 34 year-old Rumain Brisbon was shot and killed by police in Phoenix while delivering food to his children.

But long before these cases, there was Rodney King's savage, videotaped beating by police, as well as, more recently, 17 year-old Trayvon Martin's death at the hands of a seemingly trigger-happy neighbourhood watch volunteer in Sandford, Florida. These names are etched into our memories because of the emotions their deaths have stirred. These men were all black, and several American cities have been scarred by police killings and perceived injustice meted out to minorities.

There are more than 400 police killings in America each year that fall into the category of justifiable homicide, defined as "the killing of a felon by a law-enforcement officer in the line of duty".

Police statistics indicate that the victims of these shootings are overwhelming black and/or mentally ill persons. It seems reasonable that if someone is shot in disputed circumstances, an explanation is owed to the victim's family and members of the community as to what really happened. This is why there is a trial where all the evidence is presented to a jury of one's peers to determine if any wrongdoing occurred and whether anyone ought to be punished.

totally unacceptable

For a grand jury meeting in secret to decide that the officers involved in these cases ought not to be asked to at least clarify the circumstances of these killings is totally unacceptable.

Jamaican police have been flayed over many years for their use of use of excessive force, resulting in unnecessary deaths. The statistics of police killings here are alarming, and there is every indication that the creation of the oversight body INDECOM in 2010 has had an effect in reducing the number of persons killed in controversial circumstances in Jamaica. It should go down even further.

The United States is the only First World country where at least one individual is killed each day during police confrontations. For example in 2011, data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) indicate that 404 suspects were killed that year. Compare that to six killed in Australia, two in Great Britain, and six in Germany.

In 2013, the same source reported 461 justifiable homicides in the US. Britain had none and Germany had two.

While we acknowledge that police personnel have a tough job facing down criminals, we firmly believe that officers should be trained to use force that is proportionate to the threat levels they face. A man who raises his arms in surrender could not possibly be seen as a serious threat.

America now has its first black president, and there were high hopes that race tensions would have eased. However, there is every indication that since 2008, racially motivated incidents involving the police and blacks have increased. Barack Obama said this in reaction to the recent demonstrations: "We recognise this is an American problem, and it is not just a black or brown problem."

For blacks in America and in the diaspora, it must be depressing to contemplate the reality that America's first black president may leave office without making one scintilla of an impact on the racial tension that exists in America.

We believe Americans of goodwill need to define the scope of the problem to include police excesses and discrimination, and formulate a coherent response.