Friday, December 5, 2014

Home Court Advantage

In the days after a grand jury declined to indict a Ferguson, Missouri police officer in the shooting death of Michael Brown everybody all the way up to President Obama demanded that police officers wear body cameras at all times.  The argument was that if there was video evidence of what happened you wouldn't have juries confused by the multiple versions of events that were presented in the Brown case, where 22-witnesses couldn't agree on what happened right in front of them in broad daylight.  If the jurors could see with their own eyes whether or not a suspect tried to grab an officer's gun, or appeared to pull a gun of his own out of his pocket--it would be there in living color--no confusion and easy indictments.

How then do you explain another grand jury's decision not to indict a New York police officer for the choking death of Eric Garner this week?  That incident was caught on video--a video played and replayed thousands of times on all the news channels.  You can clearly see the officers arm around Garner's neck.  You can hear Garner yelling that he can't breathe.  You even see another officer kneel on Garner's head during the eventual arrest.  It's all right there for everyone to see--and yet the grand jury still chose not to indict.

Amanda Taub on the website has an article that claims police credibility--what an officers says he was doing carries more weight than anything we may actually "see" him doing--is the explanation.  Another factor is that even while watching a video of an incident, a juror is always going to see the situation through the prism of "good" and "bad".  The police officer on the screen is the "force for good"--and the suspect being choked, or beaten or shot is "the criminal". 

Remember, in both of these cases, the grand juries were presented with background on what led to the incidents in question.  In the case of Michael Brown, he was accosted by the police officer because he matched the description of someone who had stolen cigars from a convenience store earlier in the day.  In the Garner case, he was (again) selling cigarettes illegally on the street.  It was also mentioned that he had a history of resisting arrest. But what if grand juries were presented with just the circumstances of the fatal or injurious incidents themselves--seeing them in more of a vacuum than as the end result of a criminal act?  Even that might not help--as officers will still be wearing their uniforms that distinguish them as the "good guys".

And don't forget that police can be very persuasive in explaining every nuance of their actions.  You may recall an incident in Green Bay this year where an officer took a drunk guy who had been yelling at him during the arrest of another drunk guy to the ground and punched him several times while he appeared to not be resisting arrest.  That too was captured on video and initially led to calls for the firing of the officer.  But the Green Bay PD and the Brown County District Attorney put on a 40-minute multi-media presentation that featured additional camera angles, a briefing on police submission techniques and training and a blow-by-blow description of what the officer thought was happening and the reason that he responded the way he did.  Michael Brown and Eric Garner could never have put on such a presentation--because there is no training course for "defending yourself against an officer" and they are both dead.

So if anyone thinks the millions of dollars that the Obama Administration is proposing to spend this week on outfitting thousands of police officers with body cameras is going to "turn the tide"--you are sadly mistaken.

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