Friday, April 25, 2008

Crime and No Punishment?

I grew up in Miami during the 80s, which means that I lived through three major race riots before I was 20-years-old. All were the result of police either killing black men or being acquitted of killing black men. The largest of the three, the 1980 Liberty City riot, left 18 people dead -- ironically, yet not surprisingly, 8 whites and 10 blacks. The chaos it produced in the streets was almost impossible to describe: buildings were burned; businesses were looted; snipers fired at cars driving along I-95; the National Guard was called in; the situation was so frightening at one point that according to Miami Herald reporter Edna Buchanan, the staff of the paper, holed up in their downtown offices, raided the cafeteria and poured cooking oil down the building's loading ramp to prevent rioters from getting to the Herald's rear entrance.

Liberty City remained the most notable race riot in modern history, until April of 1992 -- when Los Angeles exploded.

By now, everyone knows the story: Four white L.A. cops were captured on video beating Rodney King, yet were acquitted by a jury made up of whites, a Latino and an Asian. For six days following the verdict, Los Angeles burned. When it was all over, 53 people were dead.

I was 22-years-old and had been in TV news only a couple of months when it happened. It would be another few years before I moved to Los Angeles, but to watch it go up in flames -- this place which even at the time represented a kind of personal manifest destiny for me -- was heartbreaking, particularly after having lived through Miami's calamitous recent past. I wasn't sure what to make of the verdict; it seemed almost incomprehensible to most who watched the videotape of the King beating that those wielding the batons and Taser could be found not guilty. I was among that group; I remember reacting with outrage at what seemed to be an unmitigated injustice. Although not willing to give anyone a pass for torching half a city and savagely attacking the innocent, I could understand the anger felt by many of those who took to the streets. Under then-Police Chief Daryl Gates, the LAPD had metastasized into a cold, brutish machine -- one which seemed to function more as the armed enforcers of a dictatorial state than a community police force whose job it was to protect and serve. The force as a whole inspired more fear than respect, and as far as anyone could tell, Gates was just fine with that. In the wake of the verdict, I had quite a few lengthy conversations about this subject with my father, who happened to be a veteran of the Miami-Dade Police Department.

My father's take on the acquittal in Los Angeles was unconscionable to me at the time, though not surprising given his background: He felt that despite the inflammatory nature of the videotape evidence, it didn't really prove a thing. As an ex-cop, he was of course approaching it from the standpoint that no one can know exactly what it's like to be a police officer dealing with an explosive, potentially life-threatening situation. Yes, the tape seemed to show a submissive and subdued Rodney King being viciously clubbed for no justifiable reason, but there was more to what was happening than the snapshot of the overall incident that had been captured on video. (In fact, there was even more footage on the tape itself, which the public never saw but the jury did.) Knowing what most cops have to endure on a daily basis and what can go through the mind of even the best-trained officer in a moment of extreme stress, my father was willing to give the King cops the benefit of the doubt and demand more information before rendering judgment.

Looking back on it, he was right -- not because he wanted to give the police a pass, but because he wanted to see and hear all the facts in the case before making a decision as to guilt or innocence.

Needless to say, I'm thinking quite a bit about this right now -- after the acquittal in the shooting of Sean Bell.

I won't rehash the case too deeply; you likely know the details: Bell was shot outside a strip club in Queens, New York on November 25th of 2006; plainclothes cops fired 50 rounds at his car, killing him and wounding his two passengers. At the time, even Mayor Mike Bloomberg said it sounded like excessive force was used -- but today, a judge has ruled otherwise. To those in the black community, it feels like another stunning betrayal -- a case of killers in blue blithely executing a black man then escaping punishment, proving once again that police are above the very laws they purport to uphold. Although there's calm in the streets at the moment, the usual instigators -- and by that, I mean Al Sharpton -- will most certainly soon be forcing their indignant faces in front of any camera they can find, decrying the failure of the system and the insignificance of a black life in the eyes of the law. To some extent, they'll be correct, regardless of the true, self-serving agendas behind their personal proclamations -- but I can't help thinking that, as with Rodney King, we don't know all the facts in the case other than the most incendiary of them: that 50 bullets were fired at Bell. Admittedly, that alone is enough to make me seriously question the validity of the shoot, but it's not enough to convict on its own. More evidence is needed, and I would have to hope that, before issuing his verdict, the judge saw and considered the facts that the public either wasn't aware of or refused to take into account.

Were the cops who gunned down Sean Bell truly guilty of exercising unnecessarily brutal force? Are police in general expected to meet only a paltry standard when it comes to taking deadly action?

It may seem so at this point, after all we've seen.

But that doesn't necessarily make it so.


b80vin said...

I don't know, Chez. You make valid points, but I think there must be much more concern where a life is taken. Doctors are held to much higher standards than police officers are when it comes to doing the job without mistakes, for instance. It seems to me that the number of shots fired is something of a red herring. Most officers are trained to, once they begin shooting, to shoot until they are sure they have subdued their targets. Given that this suspect was in a car, it is hard to know when he was "subdued". The question I have is was there an actual threat? How did this threat manifest itself? Did the officers act in a way, prior to the threat, that would make it inevitable?

My take is that the police have a job to do, a job that is dangerous and stressful, and we should respect that. Police forces should understand that they are hiring people for a position of authority enforced by firearms, and make sure the people they hire are appropriate to that task. Somehow we have to lessen the idea that it's an "us" (citizens) vs. "them" (police officers) situation.
Sorry this is so long, but I don't see how to address your points or the subject easily.

Melissa said...

Thanks, Chez, for reminding people that there are multiple sides to a story, no matter how obvious the evidence presented to the public would make the case appear. I'm a multi-ethnic female married to a white police detective. Every negative comment about the police that people make around me causes me to cringe or become incensed, depending on the comment.

I gave a physical sigh of relief at this verdict because I know how much more difficult it would make my husband's job. I know this won't do anything to bolster the image of the police in some quarters, but considering his department is currently working a case where a white officer shot and killed a teenage, black male and the Al Sharptons of the community are already up in arms...the facts of the case are definitely different from the media & family portrayal.

b80vin said...


As someone who spent a great deal of quality time with the police in the 70's (my teen years), I can tell you I have no fond memories of cops. As a father who, after a frantic call from his daughter that she was stuck on the side of the road, and, after rushing to find her, was relieved to see a police officer helping her, I can tell you emotions about the police vacillate back and forth. I feel for you having to hear generalizations lobbed at your husbands career. A cop who lets me off with a warning is a saint, a cop who gives me a ticket is the devil. In other words, it isn't the cop, it's me, it's my selfish emotional reaction to a situation that I'm responsible for.

As for the case at hand, surely stand up for the police officers you know, but understand, that when children are killed there is no right answer. Family is not going to be objective. And as self-serving as Sharpton my be, it is necessary to have someone asking questions.

Kelsey said...

Come on Chez, you know I love you man. We all know there are 2 sides to every story and we'll probably never know the absolute details of that night. But Jesus, this seems to happen way more than it is supposed to black and latino men. We all know if this wasn't a person of color there wouldn't have been that many shots or probably any shots period. Hell, it could happen to ME, hanging out at night with you, ending up dead due to a few careless police officers?

These guys should obviously be behind bars (murder? unarmed?). Badges are given to protect, not abuse. If you can't handle the stress, then don't be a cop (especially a racist one). Turn in your badge and go to therapy.

I don't mean to attack or anything but reading a comment from someone saying it was a "SIGH OF RELIEF" for them because it would make that cop's job more difficult? Are you kidding me? Another person is DEAD here! Another UNARMED black one at that. What about Bell's family? That's just plain heartless.

I was emailing one of my friends today about it who's a COP and even HE thinks the police in question were wrong!

Yes, Sharpton is the usual guy in the mix during these tragedies (I totally agree with what you said about his own motives lol) but in a case like this, we need people like him or anybody to fight for some sense of justice.

In this case do we really need to know anymore facts? I'm not God or a cop or a person who knows it all but if people can't see how corrupt this is no matter what color you are, it's just blindness.

Chez said...

I hear you, man. I'm not necessarily defending these guys. I guess I just felt like there are no easy answers -- as much as I wish there were.

Thanks for commenting, my friend.

Stephen said...

I was in the chair this morning when all this came down. 2 notes: I understand it's a local news story and coverage of the verdict and reaction were necessary. Everything was orderly and calm despite the buzz in the air. The closest the crowd came to even being loud was when Pat Lynch took to the podium. (Note to Pat: next time issue a statement later on).
The other note is about staying on BEYOND the coverage, following the family car with the news chopper, hovering over the cemetery while they visited Sean Bell's grave, and continuing to milk the coverage. Truly shameless. I'm glad I tagged out at 10am...what I saw on our air in the next hour had my jaw dropped.

Ally said...

Off topic, but I interviewed Daryl Gates (police chief during the LA riots) when he came prancing through my college town, and he was a complete moron who spent the entire time staring at my boobs.

He couldn't answer a question directly, because he was so enamored with the female form standing before him - and I'm far from a looker. And this was in 1993. Plenty of time for him to have sorted out his feelings on the riots.

Whata gashhound.

Kelsey said...

Hey, my first DEUS comment, now my second! Its a celebration. I actually had time (and was moved obviously) to blog for a change.

So are we hitting the Queens strip circuit or what?

Nathan said...

I didn't follow the case very closely...and by that I mean I was exposed to what passes for news here in NYC.

My first reaction to the verdict was surprise followed quickly by "The judge must know the facts better than I do and I should trust his judgment." Which was followed by the thought that if I were Black, I'd be thinking "Fucked by the system again." I'm not sure how anybody could expect blacks to have any other reaction.

And I was in L.A. during the whole Rodney King mess. Most people seemed to want to make one side the villains and on side the angels. I'm pretty convinced that everyone involved was scum. Nobody's scummy behavior there excused the other side's.

a broken spirit said...

I don't want to come across as making light of these situations, but I'd like to point out a common factor between them: Each one was precipitated by people who exhibited no concern for the lives or the safety of the public, the police or themselves.

Who leads police on a high-speed chase through city streets in the middle of the night? Who gets up after being Tasered twice and keeps coming after the police who have stopped him? Who runs out of an illegal strip club yelling that they're getting a gun, then jumps in their car and rams a police van? Who ARE these people?

God forbid that anyone hold them up as having ANYTHING in common with Louis Allen, Addie Mae Collins, Viola Gregg Liuzzo, Mack Charles Parker, Emmett Till or any of the precious martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement, people who were just trying to live their lives in peace and make the world a better place for themselves, their children and their children's children.

That movement had real heroes. Today we just have the villains.

Melissa said...

b8ovin-I've had my share of dealing with police officers that were assholes, plain and simple. I've been a college student stranded on the side of the road and had a police officer offer to call a tow only if I had cash and then drive off at 2am after he mentioned the Waffle House at the interstate had a phone if we wanted to walk the mile there.

Hell, I make generalizations about entire police departments. City of Atlanta officers tend to be pricks. Don't know if they hire them that way or the department sucks the joy our of their lives. Same goes for the county police where I live. In this case of a teen being killed, he and a friend were hanging out at night, in the dark, at the side of an apartment building watching the walkways with a fake gun that you couldn't tell from the real thing without picking it up. In my mind, this doesn't make him the innocent his family claims he was.

Kelsey-Damn right I said "sigh of relief". Bell was driving a car at police officers. Excessive number of bullets? Probably. But if someone were trying to run you down on a street, would you just stand there and brace for impact? Would I still be heartless if it was a dead police officer because he didn't defend himself from a perceived threat?

I utterly despise that in most situations, it boils down to the skin color of the participants on both sides. I've known black officers accused of being racist for arresting black offenders. My husband was regularly accused of racism when he was on patrol. Why isn't it ever "I did something wrong and got caught"? Why is it always about race or "us" (the citizens) against "them" (law enforcement)?

Felis Femina said...

Melissa - was he trying to run the officers down or was it a man who saw men coming at him with guns raised just trying to get the hell out of there? Nobody but those who heard all testimony can know for sure but what I do know is that if I left a bar a 4am and suddenly saw people, not obviously dressed as cops, running towards me aiming their weapons I would panic and just try to get away. I definitely wouldn't take the time to notice little details like a badge pinned to their collars.

So I'm very happy that you can rest easy knowing your husband's job won't be made more difficult but I think I would rather see the family of Sean Bell be able to rest easy.

Charly Gordon said...

felis femina --

"was he trying to run the officers down or was it a man who saw men coming at him with guns raised just trying to get the hell out of there? Nobody but those who heard all testimony can know for sure..."

this, to me, is the crux of the matter.

the judge heard all the testimony, and he determined that the witnesses who claimed that the police never identified themselves before opening fire were lying. in fact, he said their inconsistencies and demeanor "eviscerated their credibility."

from the jump, this case has troubled me for that one reason: why are some people so willing to leap to the conclusion that the police MUST be lying? why are some people so willing to believe that these men -- all of whom had been arrested at some point for illegal gun possession, one of whom had done TWO stretches in prison for armed robbery and for selling drugs by an elementary school -- were telling the truth?

that question seems to have been lost in the obsession over the fact that 50 shots were fired (and i have heard no one in law enforcement publicly state that the amount of shots fired was excessive).

the central question here is whether or not the police identified themselves as cops before sean bell tried to run one of them down, and the police opened fire. the cops say that they did, and benefield and guzman insist that they didn't.

if you are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to men like benefield and guzman, and NOT to the police, then i think you should ask yourself "why?"

Felis Femina said...

charly gordon -

"Men like Benefield and Guzman"? Do you personally know what kind of men they are? I mean beyond their rap sheets.

No, I am not willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the police just because they are the police and I already know why.

Charly Gordon said...

"beyond their rap sheets?"

rap sheets count for a heck of a lot. most people manage to get through life without making the monumentally bad decisions that result in having one.

and what do you personally know about these police? if the simple fact that they're cops makes them less trustworthy than a two-time convicted criminal, then i guess we'll have to agree to disagree.

Felis Femina said...

Let me remind you that Benefield and Guzman were the victims in this case, not the ones on trial so, no, I don't think their past offenses should be considered (even if they, in fact, were.)

What I know about the cops is that they shot at three men who, by many accounts, gave little reason to be shot at. I never said the cops are less trustworthy than the men, but they don't become more trustworthy just by virtue of being cops.

Anonymous said...

Citizens cant have it both ways. When you want a copy around to assist and protect in one situation and then dismiss them as racist pigs when something appears to go wrong. Truthfully, the victims arent innocent and if I was innocent, I wouldnt be running. Not everyone has the instict to run when theyve done nothing wrong. The public should be very careful. There are crooked cops just like there are loser citizens. If the 3 victims never saw the inside a prison~I might be more open to hearing their side. The fact is, we heard their side and the judge said their side was full of inconsistency and lies. Why shouldnt that be enough to satisfy? Why does the death of a black man make the police wrong in this case? I think the political correctness of our country is taking the wrong path. Prejudice & Racism are alive and well in this country and it works on behalf of all races.

Charly Gordon said...

felis --

you don't need to remind me of anything. please don't be condescending.

the only thing about this case which is indisputable is this: three men were shot by police, one fatally.

criminal charges were brought against the police because two of the survivors insisted that there was no justification for the shooting, that the detectives were, at the very least, criminally reckless and indifferent to human life.

the other side -- i.e., the police -- had a very different story: that they had very good reason to believe these men were armed, that they approached the car with guns drawn and identified themselves as police, and that sean bell responded by trying to run at least one of them down with his car.

it comes down to this: the judge, took into account the physical evidence and, yes, the history of the victims and their demeanor in his court. and he decided, unequivocably, that these men were lying.

in fact, he criticized the da's office for even bringing the case to court in the first place.

which brings me back to my original question: why, from the beginning, were some people so willing to take the word of these three men over the police? it seemed to me, even back then, that the police version of the events was the more likely scenario.

i can't help but remember that the first protest march, the day after the news broke, was organized and led by local gang members. not by al sharpton, not by the relatives of the victims. the march was led by members of the Bloods.

you can do a google news search if you don't believe me.

i would also like to point out that there has been nowhere near the public outrage that was sparked by the cases of louima and diallou. which leads me to believe that i'm not alone in my opinion.

what this seems like, to me, is simply a tragic accident, but not a criminal act -- which is the only question that was before judge cooperman.

do these three officers belong on the police force? maybe not. that's for the department to decide.

do they belong in jail? i don't think so.