On Monday, President Obama gave a speech at the launch of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, and once again laid out the obstacles present in our criminal justice system that disproportionately affect people of color, particularly young black men. In addition to the deaths of people lke Freddie Gray that have spurred unrest, he talked about disparities “in stops and in arrests, and in charges and incarcerations.”
“The statistics are clear, up and down the criminal justice system; there’s no dispute,” President Obama said Monday, in what has become a familiar litany in this new age of exposed police abuses that President Obama acknowledged, last Tuesday, seem to occur place every week, or every other week.
But President Obama also included a mantra that he and his administration have been repeating, over and over again, in the wake of every police killing caught on video, and every protest that follows them:
And what was clear from this task force was the recognition that the overwhelming majority of police officers are good and honest and fair, and care deeply about their communities. And they put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe. And their loved ones wait and worry until they come through that door at the end of their shift.
In this case, the notation was particularly poignant because, as he went on to say, New York City police officer Brian Moore died Monday after being shot in the head in the line of duty on Saturday. But President Obama has invoked the risks and sacrifices that police officers make, and the bravery they display, on many such occasions, including his remarks last week. That bravery was also on display this week when police shot and killed two gunmen in Garland, Texas.
President Obama’s mentions of police valor and sacrifice are not just a sugar coating to make his critiques of the criminal justice system go down easier, they are heartfelt and, frankly, accurate. They are also consistently misplaced alongside his insistence that the overwhelming majority of police officers are “good and honest and fair” (or variations on that theme) in the context of the sort of actions that resulted in Freddie Gray’s death.
It is our reverence for the sacrifices police officers are willing to make that blinds us to the truth about how many of them handle the sacred trust to protect and serve citizens, when it should amplify it. The truth is, we don’t have any idea how the overwhelming majority of police officers handle the specific circumstances that underpin the incidents that are now visible on an almost weekly basis (but which have been occurring for decades), because there is no reliable source of data on the subject. What we do know, from that which we can see in these cases, is that there is absolutely no evidence to support President Obama’s conclusion.
At Tuesday’s White House daily briefing, I asked Press Secretary Josh Earnest what evidence he has that most, or any, police officers act properly in these particular circumstances, and why more federal intervention isn’t needed. “I think we do that based on the experience that the vast majority of Americans has when dealing with law enforcement,” Earnest responded, and on followup, cited the thousands of hours of video in which police don’t kill or beat unarmed citizens:
“I think that is an indication that the snippets that we do see are serious, and are cause for significant concern, but do not reflect the actions and professionalism of the vast majority of law enforcement officers, who pursue their work in a professional way that’s consistent with a commitment to justice and equality.
“But as long as we have even these isolated incidents, it’s important for us to acknowledge that those isolated incidents contribute, as the President said yesterday, to broader concerns in the community about the fairness with which justice is being administered.”
Of course, to the extent that you can describe something that even President Obama says is a near-weekly occurrence as “isolated,” they are only “isolated” because these are the ones that are being caught on video. And even in those thousands of hours of video Earnest references, we have yet to see a single police officer who passed this test.
There was no good apple who stepped in to save Eric Garner, or to get Freddie Gray to a doctor when he needed it, or to stop Officer Michael Slager from planting evidence on Walter Scott’s body, or even to offer Eric Harris a kinder word than “Fuck your breath!” after he was shot by a hobby deputy. In the beating of Floyd Dent by police in Inkster, Mich., there was no good apple who intervened to stop it. See if you can spot the good apple at the police station afterwards, as Dent lay bleeding and in need of medical attention:
For President Obama’s statement to be true in the context in which he presents it, there would need to be numerous examples of police intervening on behalf of citizens in these situations, but there isn’t even one. Even in the cases we don’t see, there is little to indicate that there are any good apples when it comes to police misconduct and use of force. Based on what data they could find, The Washington Post found that of the thousands of killings by police over the past ten years, only 54 cops were ever charged, less than half were convicted, and only 12 times did a fellow officer offer testimony.
To be clear, even those 12 weren’t necessarily “good” apples, just apples doing what apples are supposed to do. On his All In program Monday night, Chris Hayes interviewed a former Baltimore cop who was drummed out of the force for testifying against a fellow officer who beat a restrained, unarmed suspect, but even that guy didn’t do the truly “good apple” thing, and stop the beating as it was going on.
The sacrifices of officers like Brian Moore aren’t just irrelevant to the actions of police officers who are put to this test and fail, they are an indictment of them. Worse than that, though, the entire “overwhelming majority” premise is crippling our ability to solve the problem. President Obama said, last week, that “I can’t federalize every police force in the country,” and his administration has resisted calls for mandatory body cameras, but the situation we have now calls for robust federal intervention: In addition to body cameras, there needs to be an independent federal agency to investigate and prosecute police misconduct, and mandatory collection of profiling and use of force data, at a minimum.
What we have now is clearly not equal and not protection, and it is the role of the federal government to make sure that citizens’ right to that equal protection is not left to some quirk of geography.