The failure to indict a police officer for yet another killing of a young, Black person – this time a child, 12-year-old Tamir Rice – should outrage us and cause us to look more deeply at the structures that make both Rice’s shooting and the non-indictment mutually reinforcing acts. Similarly, the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the brilliant organizing within it compels us to look at the relationship between crime and policing in a new way: it forces our society to confront how it allows the police to get away with committing crimes against Black and brown communities.
When it comes to policing, civil and human rights lawyers are myth busters. We work with organizers, activists and journalists, to bust storied myths, passed down through generations, that attempt to normalize unaccountable police power and the abuses that inevitably flow from it. We also bust the myths about Black and brown criminality that many people believe are true, but simply aren’t.
It’s wise to be wary — very wary — of the police media machine when it tells us that aggressive police practices are always justified, no matter the harm to Black and brown communities. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, ominously warned that without aggressive policing of Black and brown communities, the crime rate would skyrocket. Well, guess what? A recent New York Times editorial, New York City Policing, by the Numbers, points out that in the years surrounding the landmark ruling in the Center for Constitutional Rights’s lawsuit that the NYPD stop-and-frisk policy was racially discriminatory, the number of street stops plummeted some 91% — from 685,000 in 2011 to just 46,000 in 2014 — and the crime rate remains at an historic low. Clearly the NYPD’s backing off of its hyper-aggressive and unconstitutional stop and frisk program has not unleashed an apocalyptic wave of Black lawlessness and crime. Myth busted.
There was virtually no chance of that happening because, as we have been pointing out for several years, there is no correlation between racially discriminatory stops and frisks and the rate of crime. The presence of the practice didn’t prevent crime and its absence doesn’t create crime. But there is another, deeper myth that needs addressing beyond whether police practices curb crime; and that is how we handle police practices that are crimes in themselves.
Which brings us back to Tamir Rice. In an earlier blog post, I posed the question, when is shooting a 12-year-old child reasonable? The answer, of course, is when the child is Black and the shooter is a police officer. This was the case with respect to the killing of Tamir Rice and, predictably, a grand jury found no cause to even charge the shooting officer with a crime. This is a pattern that is all too familiar in our country where, for years, police officers have been virtually unindictable for actions that would have certainly resulted in criminal charges if committed by anyone else.
Underlying this pattern is a powerful myth that has taken deep root in our criminal system: police officers don’t commit crimes. The myth is not true, of course, but entire economic systems, belief systems and political careers reinforce it nonetheless. Police officers might be the only humans in America that are truly presumed innocent after a killing. This is not just a question of the mindset of the prosecutor, but is also a question of the state resources expended to ensure that presumption when it comes to cops. In the Tamir Rice case, for example, even in the process of considering whether to charge the officer, the prosecutor hired independent experts that supported the defense, about which I noted:
“... it surprises no one that the experts hired by Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty to investigate the fatal shooting of Tamir Rice . . . have come to the same conclusions as the county police and (let's be honest) McGinty himself: that the shooting was "reasonable."
We’d be hard pressed to find a non-cop example where a county prosecutor, police department and police union were spending a ton of money and political capital to ensure that someone wasn’t criminally charged. That’s more than a mere presumption of innocence; that’s mythos.
Faced with such grand-scale and false belief, we must offer new, accurate stories about how police power actually works. One new story that remains woefully unaddressed is the police officer crime rate. Such a thing is hard for people to get their heads around and doesn’t even seem to make sense at first. There are good reasons for cognitive dissonance on this subject, because the very tools by which we might measure police criminality don’t exist, thanks in large part to the fact that we’re waiting on police departments, police unions and prosecutors to produce them for us.
To begin with, we only analyze and project crime rates for civilians, and not for cops. Second, we don’t even collect useful, accurate data on police crimes, because we rely on the police to produce it, which they largely refuse to do. Instead, news outlets like The Guardian and The Washington Post have taken on the function of pulling together the numbers on police-involved shootings and accountability. Third, our court systems have been in the habit of believing just about anything that comes out of a police officer’s, police chief’s or police union official's mouth, no matter how outrageous or demonstrably false. Finally, in order to hold officers accountable for illegalities, we rely on prosecutors — who work with the police every single day — to somehow don the blindfold and pretend that the person that did that horrible thing wasn’t wearing a badge. That of course does not happen. How do we know this? Because, so far this year, of the 1,125 people killed by police, only 15 police officers have been indicted for murder or manslaughter for on-duty shootings. None have been convicted.
We need to understand what the police officer crime rate looks like in order to understand the relationship between policing and crime from a different perspective than the police. Having a badge doesn’t make you immune from committing crimes, of course, but there is powerful evidence that it makes you immune from being prosecuted for the crimes you commit while wearing it.