President Obama has requested $263 million to pay for a federal response to keep peace in Ferguson. The town is roiled by protests since a grand jury declined to indict police officer Darren Wilson for shooting unarmed teen Michael Brown to death.
The money will supposedly be used for body cameras and more training for law enforcement. Of course the amount the federal government has spent purchasing tanks and other military-grade equipment for police departments dwarfs that amount, $4.3 billion, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The National Defense Authorization Act authorizes the federal government to pay to arm local police departments like they’re fighting in Fallujah. Perhaps Obama should instead suggest a little of that funding go into greater accountability for police departments.
Indicting Ham Sandwiches
What many people fail to understand about the grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson is just how unusual it is. A decision not to indict simply means Wilson won’t stand trial for killing Brown. Less than one percent of grand jury cases don’t move to trial. As Wikipedia states, “New York State chief judge Sol Wachtler was famously quoted by Tom Wolfe in The Bonfire of the Vanities that ‘a grand jury would ‘indict a ham sandwich,’ if that’s what you wanted.’” That is, unless it’s a cop. As FiveThirtyEight reported, “According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.”
Cases involving police shootings, however, appear to be an exception. As my colleague Reuben Fischer-Baum has written, we don’t have good data on officer-involved killings. But newspaper accounts suggest, grand juries frequently decline to indict law-enforcement officials.
A recent Houston Chronicle investigation found that “police have been nearly immune from criminal charges in shootings” in Houston and other large cities in recent years. In Harris County, Texas, for example, grand juries haven’t indicted a Houston police officer since 2004; in Dallas, grand juries reviewed 81 shootings between 2008 and 2012 and returned just one indictment. Separate research by Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson has found that officers are rarely charged in on-duty killings, although it didn’t look at grand jury indictments specifically.
While police departments have been legally required to track how many people their officers kill every year for decades, no one has enforced that law. You can’t manage what you can’t measure. The first thing that Obama should do, if he wants to materially change law enforcement for the better, is create real consequences for police departments to obey the law and track their killings. Why are we spending billions to better arm police departments but spending zero dollars to make sure they’re not improperly killing American citizens?
And the evidence is mounting that that’s exactly what’s happening. In July a New York police officer choked 43-year-old father-of-six Eric Garner to death. He was being arrested on suspicion of selling illegal, untaxed cigarettes. Last month, an officer in Cleveland, Ohio shot a 12-year-old boy to death for playing with a toy gun. In May, a Wisconsin SWAT team threw a flash-bang grenade 19-month-old Bou Bou’s crib. He was put in a medically induced coma and suffered third-degree burns.
NBC News is reporting that President Obama publicly rejected calls to stop buying military-grade equipment for police departments. “The White House instead defended a Pentagon initiative that sends excess military equipment, including Humvees, to local police departments.”
But perhaps the most pressing issue for police reform is getting police and the National Guard in Ferguson to do their jobs. The New York Times is reporting that officers and guardspeople are currently only protecting police headquarters and government buildings, while allowing local businesses and homes to burn.
Body cameras and more training are a place to start, for sure. But the bigger issue, which President Obama seems unable, or unwilling, to grasp, is that there are two standards of transparency, accountability, and justice in this country. There’s one, for citizens and one for police officers. This fundamental problem is compounded with deadly, military-style equipment used to protect police officers and kill civilians.
The impulse to empathize with police officers, who put their lives on the line to serve and protect, is understandable. But despite what we see in shows, and what officers say, it’s never been less dangerous to be a cop. Now it’s time to focus on accountability. Until police officers can reasonably expect to be called to account for who they kill and why, we need to put a stop to arming them like soldiers.