Ferguson, Staten Island, Jasper

I don’t really know how to describe it other than an epidemic. In two high profile incidents, white Police Officers have shot and killed unarmed African-American men. In Ferguson, in the case of Michael Brown and Officer Darren Wilson, Brown was shot six times by Wilson after the two got into some type of altercation. Wilson claimed that he fired in self defense against the allegedly aggressive Brown, and he had to use lethal force since Brown was apparently “charging” at him. The majority of witnesses claim that Brown had his hands up, was not resisting or some variation thereof. As I explained earlier in The Daily Texan, I think the evidence was insufficient for a conviction, but the very low bar to an indictment should have easily been cleared.

Then, there is the case of Eric Garner in Staten Island. Approached by NYPD on suspicion of selling individual cigarettes, a rather low-level citation offense, Garner began arguing with officers. After repeatedly, calmly and peacefully attempting to argue with the officers, he was placed in a chokehold and tackled to the ground, where he was quite literally strangled to death. This, despite the fact that NYPD has prohibited chokeholds for about 20 years. The entire sickening incident was caught on video. Still, a grand jury this past evening no-billed Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who killed lynched Garner.

Additionally, as the Texas Observer fills us in on (c/o the Beaumont Enterprise), a grand jury in Jasper County has opted to no-bill a white Police Officer who brutally beat up an unarmed African-American woman on video at the police station. Thankfully, unlike the other two incidents, this woman — who was accused of petty shoplifting — survived the encounter. Jasper, of course, has its own terrifying history of racism.

All this is to say there is, in fact, an epidemic of police brutality in this country. The vast majority of Police Officers are honest, hardworking people who put their lives on the line for the safety of the community; but some harbor prejudicial tendencies and must be dealt with appropriately. For some time now, I have endorsed body cameras for officers. Generally speaking, they have been supported in a bipartisan manner.

President Barack Obama has requested about $263 Million from congress to dole out these devices — which record officers’ interactions with the general public — to local departments. Similarly, District Attorney-elect Susan Hawk in Dallas County, a Republican, has announced a plan to use surplus funds to equip Dallas PD and other departments with the devices.

KHOU has even reported, just a few hours ago, that Mayor Annise Parker plans on buying body cameras for local police with or without federal funds. I’m still a rather vehement supporter of this technology, as it minimizes he said/cop said situations. However, the Garner case still proves that a video is not enough to ensure justice is carried out. The good news, however, is that it removes the ambiguity and doubt that surrounds these cases. For example, in the Michael Brown case, I am not sure if Wilson was justified in his response or not, so I think there should have been a trial but — given the evidence known for certain — I don’t know if I would have voted for a conviction. In Garner’s case, however, there is almost no doubt in my mind that the Officer committed cold-blooded second degree murder.

However, in order to truly fix the problem, the grand jury system needs to be reformed. State Senator John Whitmire (D-Harris County) has a long overdue idea in eliminating the venal key-man grand jury system, though it is worth noting that both the Ferguson and Staten Island no-billing occurred through random selection. I think the only way to solve this is to convert grand juries into far more temporary entities, operating on summons like petit juries, which may not be totally representative of the community but are still better than grand juries.

Additionally, I think states should change pertinent laws regarding the burden of proof for police officers accused of such crimes, clarifying that it is rather low. The reason we have such easy indictments in this country is that convictions are unusually hard — compared to the rest of the world — to achieve.

I realize these tweaks to state laws are quixotic, especially in Texas, but they appear to be the most effective way to resurrect some modicum of justice to our twisted world.