Why The Inglewood Cops Won
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There were huge warning signs that Inglewood police officer Bijan Darvish and former Inglewood officer Jeremy Morse would come out on top in their wrongful termination lawsuit against Inglewood city officials. When a jury deadlocked after the second trial of Morse, charged in the videotaped beating of black teen Donovan Jackson, Morse's attorney, John Barnett, said that no jury would ever vote to fully convict or acquit him. He was right. The attorneys that defend cops accused of assault almost always are A-team attorneys. They are highly skilled, and have had much experience defending police officers accused of misconduct.
In the civil trial, Morse's attorney, Gregory Smith, an experienced civil litigator, skillfully turned the racial tables on Inglewood, and charged that city officials canned Morse, and not a black officer also involved in the beating, solely because he was white. Whether the jury would buy that argument, hinged on the type of jurors Smith could get in the jury box.
In Morse's two criminal trials, Barnett got juries with almost no blacks on them. In racially charged cases such as the Jackson case, defense attorneys who defend cops accused of assault always seek to get as many whites or non-blacks on a jury as possible. The presumption is that non-black jurors are much more likely to be middle-class, and conservative, and much more likely to believe the testimony of police and prosecution witnesses than black witnesses, defendants, or even victims, as Jackson allegedly was. Studies show that many whites believe that blacks are more likely to engage in criminal conduct than whites. A 2003 Penn State University study found that many whites are likely to associate pictures of blacks with violent crimes, and in some cases where crimes were not committed by blacks they misidentified the perpetrator as an African American.
The frequent media portrayal of young blacks as crime-prone, drug-dealing gangsters, the gang and murder violence that continues to wrack many black neighborhoods in Los Angeles, and the glorification of the thug lifestyle by many young blacks reinforces negative racial perceptions. This makes many whites, non-blacks, and even many blacks guarded, suspicious and fearful of blacks. Despite the Rampart scandal, and the long history of police abuse cases in L.A., it's still virtually impossible to convince many jurors that some police lie, beat, maim, and even kill unarmed suspects.
In the civil trial, Morse's attorney played hard on the public's reflexive belief that police are simon-pure in their motives, have a tough and dangerous job to do that puts terrible stress on them. The accusations of misconduct, which almost always come from minorities, are exaggerated, or trumped up and they are instantly made scapegoats by timid police and city officials eager to appease minorities.
That's the ploy that Smith used, and used well. Darvish and Morse gave jurors a detailed account of their version of the beating. The jurors saw and heard real, live, flesh and blood officers pleading their case. They came across not as brutes, but as caring, feeling officers that were victims of vindictive city officials. That was more than enough to trump the horrific videotape shots of Morse body slamming Jackson to the hood of a police cruiser. Their testimony rammed home the point to jurors that the videotape gave a distorted and skewed view of the assault.
Since there are no ironclad standards of what is or isn't acceptable use of force, or what degree of force is excessive, it often comes down to a judgment call by the officer. That created just enough doubt in the minds of the jurors that if Jackson was not the aggressor, than he at least put up enough resistance to the arrest to justify some use of force to restrain him, and Morse, therefore, did nothing wrong.
Inglewood city officials face the same dilemma that prosecutors and other city officials have faced time and again when juries acquit cops charged with abuse, reinstate them to their jobs, and reward them with huge financial settlements. That dilemma is whether to continue to pursue legal action against them. In this case that means filing an appeal to overturn the multi-million dollar award the two officers got, and with Morse whether to fight any attempt he might make to get his job back.
Given the daunting, even towering obstacles, to taking punitive action against abusive officers, and making it stick, there's no guarantee that the money, time and effort, that Inglewood city officials must expend to fight the case will succeed, and there's every chance that it won't. Yet, they are duty bound to fight anyway. The verdict sent the horribly conflicted message that city officials and police officials tread on dangerous legal ground when they discipline officers, even those that clearly deserve it.
That's a message that's unacceptable. Inglewood, and indeed no other police department can afford the scandal and embarrassment of another Jackson beating case.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black a featured columnist for AlterNet and BlackNews.com and African-American newspapers nationally. He is the publisher of The Hutchinson Report Newsletter, an online public issues newsletter.