News & Politics

How Our Warped Legal System and Law Enforcement Culture Lets Cops Get Away With Murder

Without a larger reform of police culture, the drug war and militarization, abuse by law enforcement will endure.

Police lights
Photo Credit: Schmidt_Alex

It seems fitting that 2015 would end with yet another example of our justice system failing to hold police accountable for killing an unarmed African-American. The Tamir Rice case was especially poignant because the victim was only 12 years old. He was playing in the park with a toy gun — like millions of kids do all over the country. And the video that everyone saw with their own eyes showed that police rolled up and within seconds shot him dead. The prosecution and a grand jury decided they were justified in doing that for reasons that make little sense to rational people.

The story of fatal police shootings of unarmed African-Americans is a national shame. We don’t even know how many of them there are. But with every video and every family’s public pain and every astonishing decision to hold nobody accountable, the nation is shocked out of its complacency and police reforms are demanded by the people. It is long overdue.

The Obama administration released its reform recommendations from the Task Force on 21st Century Policing last spring. This article in the Nation by Alex S Vitale outlines the proposals for changes in police procedures:

Such procedural reforms focus on training officers to be more judicious and race-neutral in their use of force and how they interact with the public. The report encourages officers to work harder to explain to people why they are being stopped, questioned or arrested. Departments are advised to create consistent use of force policies and mechanisms for civilian oversight and transparency. The report implies that more training, diversity and communication will lead to enhanced police community relations, more effective crime control and greater police legitimacy.

There is no doubt that African-Americans are the hardest hit by the policies that allow police to operate in an atmosphere of impunity. Here’s an everyday example of how this can play out in everyday life:

Nicholson Gregoire, a 25-year-old biology student at Nassau Community College, was walking his puppy pit bull, Blue, around 5:00 pm on December 15 when he noticed police conducting “stop and frisk” searches, according to the New York Daily News. Police noticed the dog wasn’t restrained by a leash and asked Gregoire for ID. Gregoire reportedly was granted permission to go inside his Queens Village home to find the ID, but he closed the door, prompting two officers to repeatedly ring the doorbell. Gregoire’s 87-year-old grandfather, Roleme, came down the stairs to answer the door, but from there, the police and Gregoire tell different versions of subsequent events.

According to Gregoire’s lawyer, the police claim that his client “dragged them inside,” which is just bizarre. The arrest report alleged that Gregoire refused to hand over his ID, but a video shot by Gregoire’s girlfriend, showing police struggling with him on the stairs, has Gregoire holding up his hands showing the ID.

Whatever happened in the house, they had no reason to stop him or ask him for ID. He was walking his puppy on the street where he lives. The police created a dangerous situation where none had existed before. And this happens many times each day, all over the country. Gregoire was arrested and faces seven years in prison for resisting arrest, assaulting an officer, and strangulation. He’s been suspended from his job and missed his final exam. It reminds me of the old Bob and Ray routine “Squad Car 19″:

“The suspect apprehended in that case at Rossmore and LaBrea was convicted on three counts of being apprehended and one count of being a suspect. Apprehended suspects are punished under state law by a term of not less than five years in the correctional institution at Soledad.”

As Vitale wrote in his Nation piece, these changes in procedures are a good start but the problem goes much deeper:

What is not discussed in the report is dialing back in any meaningful way the war on drugs, police militarization or the widespread use of “broken windows” policing that has led to the unnecessary criminalization of millions of mostly black and brown people. Well-trained police, following proper procedure, are still going to be engaged in the process of arresting people for mostly low-level offenses, and the burden of that will continue to fall primarily on communities of color, because that is how the system is designed to operate—not because of the bias or misunderstandings of officers. A more respectful and legally justified arrest for marijuana possession is still an arrest that could result in unemployment, loss of federal benefits and the stigma of a drug arrest.

Many cities are studying “stop and frisk” reform (one of the most recent being Chicago) but without a larger reform of police culture, the drug war and militarization it’s unlikely to have the effect reformers hope.

And lest any of us nice comfortable white people get the idea that this is only a problem in the inner cities and nothing we need be concerned about because the majority of such cases affect African-Americans, this story should shake us out of any complacency. This one didn’t happen on the mean streets of Chicago or Baltimore. It happened in a nice Kansas suburb. Radley Balko of the Washington Post reported:

In April 2012, a Kansas SWAT team raided the home of Robert and Addie Harte, their 7-year-old daughter and their 13-year-old son. The couple, both former CIA analysts, awoke to pounding at the door. When Robert Harte answered, SWAT agents flooded the home. He was told to lie on the floor. When Addie Harte came out to see what was going on, she saw her husband on his stomach as SWAT cop stood over him with a gun. The family was then held at gunpoint for more than two hours while the police searched their home. Though they claimed to be looking for evidence of a major marijuana growing operation, they later stated that they knew within about 20 minutes that they wouldn’t find any such operation. So they switched to search for evidence of “personal use.” They found no evidence of any criminal activity.

One can only imagine what would have happened if Mr. Harte had made a wrong move. Or if he had been black.

This raid happened because seven months earlier Mr. Harte had gone to a gardening store that sells hydroponic equipment that marijuana growers sometimes use. He went with his son to buy some items for a school project and police conducting surveillance in the parking lot took down his license plate and then went through his garbage. They found some wet leafy material, conducted a rudimentary field test and it came up as marijuana.

Had they used a reliable lab test, they would have found that the wet leafy material was ordinary tea. (The fact that it was wet should have been a tip-off — who dunks pot in water?) But they didn’t.  The test would have taken 10 days and they had a big PR stunt planned on April 20 (420 being slang for marijuana) and that would have taken too long. Instead they burst into the Harte home and terrorized the family based upon nothing more than the fact they had shopped in a garden store and used loose tea.

SWAT raids like this happen all the time, often based on little evidence and even sometimes in cases of mistaken identity.  Unfortunately, the SWAT lobby (yes, there is such a thing) has mobilized to thwart reforms.

But as the Tamir Rice case shows us, the problem doesn’t end at the police station door. The legal system fails time and again to mete out justice in these cases. Prosecutors who work closely with the cops are often unwilling to press charges and where there is public attention some are using the grand jury as cover by presenting the case like police defense lawyers and passing the buck when they fail to bring an indictment.

But judges and politicians also factor into the problem. The Kansas SWAT raid resulted in a lawsuit brought by the victims after they had spent tens of thousands of dollars just trying to find out why they had been targeted. The police told them they had no obligation to tell them and refused to do so. Last week a judge dismissed their case. Balko writes:

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge John W. Lungstrum dismissed every one of the Hartes’s claims. Lungstrum found that sending a SWAT team into a home first thing in the morning based on no more than a positive field test and spotting a suspect at a gardening store was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment. He found that the police had probable cause for the search, and that the way the search was conducted did not constitute excessive force. He found that the Hartes had not been defamed by the raid or by the publicity surrounding it. He also ruled that the police were under no obligation to know that drug testing field kits are inaccurate, nor were they obligated to wait for the more accurate lab tests before conducting the SWAT raid. The only way they’d have a claim would be if they could show that the police lied about the results, deliberately manipulated the tests or showed a reckless disregard for the truth — and he ruled that the Hartes had failed to do so.

Keep in mind that this was a ruling for summary judgment. This was not a trial. To dismiss the suit at this stage, Lungstrum needed to view the facts in a light most favorable to the Hartes. And yet he still found that at no point did the police violate the family’s constitutional rights.

In other words, drinking tea and shopping at a gardening store are considered legitimate probable cause for a SWAT team to raid your home and search it from top to bottom.

Walking your puppy in front of your house is probable cause to stop you and then burst through the door of your house when you go in to get your ID to show them.

Twelve-year-olds playing with a toy gun in a public park are legally considered to be armed and dangerous and subject to summary execution.

Those are just three cases of police abuse in the newspaper in the last week of 2015. They represent many more examples of the various ways in which our legal system and police culture are failing to live up to American constitutional principles. There are many good people working on these problems, trying to find ways to change the processes, the culture and the law. But it’s going to take constant pressure from the public to make it happen.

 

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.