Reducing Excessive Force Cases
The difficulty in reducing police excessive force cases lies in the tremendous authority the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) has granted beat cops. Under the ruse of safety, the SCOTUS has essentially said beat cops can use whatever amount of deadly force is necessary to protect themselves or the public. This grant of authority amounts to immunity in most instances. In turn, police departments use this massive grant of authority to develop their training manuals or programs. Consequently, beat cops emerge from police academies knowing their authority is practically unlimited at the slightest provocation.
To make matters worse, grand juries, which usually consist of white majorities, are extremely reluctant to question beat cops who use deadly force, even when an eyewitness or video shows violations of law or policy. These majority white grand juries see beat cops as the thin blue line that protects whites from black thuggery. The result is very lethal and dangerous beat cops who are embolden and more trigger happy than combat soldiers. At least, combat soldiers must get approval from their superiors and comply with rules of engagement before using deadly force. Not so with beat cops. The law will not hold them accountable even if excessive force complaints and lawsuits pile up against them. Instead, the law typically shields them from accountability.
The Chicago Police Department (CPD)
Consider Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke. He shot a black teenager, Laquan McDonald, sixteen times under very questionable circumstances. As McDonald laid on the ground dying, clearly posing no threat to anyone, Van Dyke riddled his body with fourteen rounds. None of the other beat cops on the scene fired their sidearms.
The City of Chicago paid the family of McDonald five million dollars before the family commenced any legal action. More than a year after the killing, the mayor announced that a grand jury had indicted Officer Van Dyke on first-degree murder charges but only after a judge forced the city to release the dashcam video of the disturbing incident. What’s more, the video debunked sworn statements filed by the officers on the scene, who had sworn under oath that McDonald had lunged at Van Dyke. This tragedy may not have occurred if the City of Chicago had taken more seriously the twenty or so previous excessive force complaints filed against Van Dyke.
Meanwhile, the Chicago police department is not alone at failing to hold rogue beat cops accountable. According to a Washington Post analysis, since 2005, states have prosecuted only 54 beat cops in thousands of fatal police shootings. What’s more, most of the 54 were not convicted or held accountable. This lack of accountability gives beat cops no reason to fear repercussions for using excessive force. With the unqualified support of the white community (the SCOTUS, legislatures, grand juries, etc.) beat cops feel empowered to kill African Americans with impunity.
Scaling Back The Authority of Beat Cops
Long term we need the SCOTUS to change course in excessive force cases and dial back the extraordinary authority it has granted beat cops. Without the SCOTUS taking this step, police departments will have no incentive to change how they train beat cops.
The SCOTUS might be more motivated to take this step if the Justice Department took a stronger stance against rogue beat cops. Let me explain. Many blacks, myself included, celebrated the rise of both Eric Holder and former US Attorney Loretta Lynch to the high office of Attorney General. We felt they understood our concerns regarding excessive force cases since they are African Americans.
What many blacks failed to consider is that Holder and Lynch have been career prosecutors most of their professional lives. Their instincts solidly comport with law enforcement although their public personas and statements suggest otherwise. So, as a criminal defense attorney, I was not surprised to learn that the Justice Department during Holder and Lynch’s tenure supported beat cops in nearly every excessive force case that reached the SCOTUS.
A short-term solution may be to lobby state legislatures to enact state laws that address excessive force issues. Sorry, history and racial dynamics strongly suggest this goal would be a failing proposition in many states because most excessive force victims are African Americans, and most state legislators are white males and a growing number is conservative.
The Black Lives Matter Movement
This fact brings me to the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLMM). It has enjoyed some success in bringing attention to the issue of police brutality. In fact, I love the BLMM, but I recognize its shortfalls and inability to spur lasting change for several reasons.
First, as I mentioned above, many state legislatures are white conservatives, who strongly dislike the BLMM and see no reason to weaken the authority of beat cops. Moreover, it’s no secret that white conservatives control the US House of Representatives. The BLMM has no sway with these conservative politicians and cannot, therefore, bring about any change in the law.
Second, the BLMM seems to focus only on street protests. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not dismissing street protests. They can be effective in some regards. However, the Civil Rights movement demonstrated that real and systemic change only occurs when there’s a dynamic partnership between a diverse group of protestors, lawyers, politicians, businesses, clergy, churches and others that are united around common objectives and working together to move all three branches of local and national governments to adopt those objectives. That was the beauty and strength of the Civil Rights Movement.
The BLMM seems to be averse to this proven approach. Apparently, the BLMM thinks it can cripple white supremacy alone without others. This thinking is shortsighted and will fail at spurring systemic change.
Activating Black Power
Hope is not lost here. We have very powerful ways of pushing the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of state and national governments. We have black power! Let me define black power in my terms. It is the political, economic and social force that comes from black people uniting, harnessing and wisely leveraging their resources (e.g., dollars, votes, influence, businesses, churches). Its principal purpose is to rebuild the black community by restoring black families, empowering black youth and leveraging black resources. Here’s how we use black power to hold police accountable.
Vote In All Elections
In our democratic republic voting is key. Indeed, it’s power. Unless we vote our individual and collective voices are silent and powerless. We have no self-determination unless we vote in all elections especially local elections. Other folks will determine our destiny and likely relegate us to second class citizenship if we fail to vote.
Case and point: Ferguson, Missouri. We learned from the Michael Brown killing that a white minority controlled the city of Ferguson although it has a black majority. That white minority implemented policies and laws and hired officials that oppressed the black majority. This injustice happened because the black majority failed to vote in local elections. Unfortunately, one could argue that the racial injustices in Ferguson were self-imposed because blacks in Ferguson failed to vote in local elections.
Spend Our Money Wisely
African Americans have real spending power. The 2015 Nielsen Report quoted the U.S. Census, which says that “real median household income increased more among African-American households (+$793) than among White households (+$433) and more than the total population.” The good news doesn’t stop there. Nielsen also reported that “in the years from 2005- 2013, the income bracket with the largest increase for Black households occurred in the number of households earning over $200,000, with an increase of 138%, compared to an increase of 74% for the total population.”
What may be most eye-popping is the fact that African American has over a trillion dollars in buying power. We possess more buying power than most nations. This amount of money spent and invested wisely is black power. Here’s how. The business lobby controls Congress and the White House. Hence, if blacks wisely use their spending power to influence the business lobby we can influence Congress, the SCOTUS and the White House.
Black Social Media
The 2015 Nielsen Report also shed some light on African Americans use of social media. Specifically, Nielsen reports that “penetration levels of smartphones are much higher for Blacks at 83%, compared with the total population (78%) or non-Hispanic Whites (75%). Consequently, African Americans spend a considerable amount of time on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and so forth.
We can convert our loyalty to social media to black power if we use it smartly. We have seen examples of this power recently when social media was used to topple Middle Eastern governments, promote social causes or champion justice for certain individuals. In fact, the black lives matter movement begin as a simple twitter hashtag. Moreover, organizations like Color of Change have used the internet and social media to bring real change in many areas.
Unleash The Black Church
My guess is that there are more churches in the black community per capita than any other racial or ethnic community in America. Further, African Americans of all socio-economic levels attend church more often than other races. Therefore, the black church is the central institution in the black community. It’s fair to say that the black church is the sleeping giant in the black community.
It’s time to awaken and unleash this giant once again. Historically, the black church has been front and center in our struggle for equality. Today, its influence has waned somewhat as a younger generation drifts from the church. Recently, I even saw black lives matter activists acting unseemly in a local church. Nevertheless, the black church is still the most powerful force in the black community. It still has the potential to shake America at its core. It was the black and white church working together that brought down slavery. And it was black and white churches that brought down Jim Crow. The black church is Black Power!
These are only a few ways to activate black power and force white America to address police brutality and other problems. This list is not close to being exhaustive. We have hidden and untapped black power in so many other ways.
Nevertheless, it would be remiss of me to conclude this article without this reminder. Until we activate black power, African Americans must handle police encounters more wisely. The goal of these potentially deadly encounters should be de-escalation, not escalation and provocation. We cannot fight beat cops effectively on the streets. Remember, SCOTUS has granted beat cops near carte blanche authority to take life on the streets and white grand juries will stretch to find justifications for these killings, especially when African Americans are the victims. Hence, we play into their web when we resist arrest or run rather than comply. Noncompliance gives them justification to charge us with crimes or arguably kill us. We must fight them with our minds, dollars and votes, not our fists. Take the fight to the ballot box not the street corner. Let’s fight them with Black Power!