Worst in Governance
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon
That courts in Ferguson, MO, and New York failed to indict police officers in the recent deaths of two unarmed African-American men was sadly a surprise to very few. The last few months have shown that the list of unarmed Black men slain by police is more than just Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York. Akai Gurley in Brooklyn, 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and Ezell Ford in Los Angeles are among the many Black police-involved fatalities that have occurred with mind-numbing frequency in recent memory. According to a recent ProPublica analysis of federal data on fatal police shootings from 2010 to 2012, young Black males are a staggering 21 times more likely to be killed by police than their white peers.
As demonstrators took to the streets in Ferguson, Los Angeles, New York, Berkeley, and elsewhere last month to protest the failure of the American criminal justice system to consider the cases of Brown and Garner, there was much discussion about the fundamental fairness of the justice system, the role of police oversight, and the limits of police power. The performance of St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch in announcing that no charges would be filed against Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on November 24 seemed only to exacerbate many of those concerns.
His bizarre and rambling press conference “sounded more like a defense of Officer Wilson than a neutral summary of the facts that had led the grand jury to its conclusion,” according to the New York Times. The subsequent release of the grand jury transcripts show an unhealthy deference to Wilson during the former Ferguson police officer’s unusual testimony and a seeming reluctance to carry the case forward. And McCullouch made little attempt to distance himself from his personal history (his police officer father was killed in the line of duty) and political connections to the police.
Unfortunately, Brown’s case is far from unique. Since the Supreme Court empowered police with broad powers to take violent action in the 1989’s Graham v. Connor case, it has been difficult to second guess the actions of police officers or provide some measure of accountability for law-enforcement agencies. But in light of the highly charged situation in Ferguson, elected officials must do more to establish the credibility and transparency of the justice systems. Accountability must come from outside of the same legal institutions that work closely with police officers that face charges, as many have pointed out. In Ferguson, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon could have moved to appoint an independent prosecutor or special investigatory panel. By refusing to provide an outside, special prosecutor, Nixon seems content to allow the case to fade away and let the grim cycle of the American justice continue its tragic arc.
Moving forward, there must be more debate about police accountability and how law-enforcement agencies can start to rebuild trust with the communities they serve. It’s true that policing is a dangerous job, but without greater oversight, the legitimacy of an important institution is at stake. Civilian review boards, the increased use of body cameras, more efforts to curb racial profiling, and greater training for police officers should be explored to ensure that justice for all is not an empty promise.