lew of recent police shootings involving white officers and unarmed blacks has led to renewed scrutiny on racial bias in law enforcement and how officers are held accountable when something suspect happens.
The issue hits close to home in Cincinnati. Two high-profile cases involving police shootings of unarmed black men have made headlines in Ohio in the past few months, and the issue has deep echoes in the city’s past. Intense civil unrest tore through downtown neighborhoods in 2001 after unarmed black teenager Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by white Cincinnati Police Officer Stephen Roach. Though police-community relations have improved since then, the issue remains emotional.
On Nov. 25, a peaceful rally in Cincinnati drew more than 300 people, many decrying wide racial inequities in America’s justice system. An unplanned three-hour march followed, making its way through downtown, Over-the-Rhine and the West End before briefly shutting down I-75 as protesters streamed onto the highway.
The demonstrations in Cincinnati were part of a national outpouring of anger that began when black 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot Aug. 9 by white Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. On Nov. 24, a grand jury in St. Louis County declined to indict Wilson, spurring renewed rounds of civil unrest in the area and large demonstrations in Los Angeles, New York City, Seattle and other cities.
“Honestly, after the decision yesterday I was a bit numb,” said Curtis Webb as he marched through downtown Nov. 25. “I’m scared to be black. … I’m always questioning, ‘Am I doing the right thing? Do I look too dangerous? Are the police going to pull me over?’ ”
More police shootings of unarmed black men
On Aug. 6, John Crawford III was holding a toy rifle when an officer shot him in a Beavercreek Walmart. Security footage showed Crawford talking on a cell phone with a BB gun sold in the store slung over his shoulder before police shot him.
Last month, Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy, was killed by police while playing with a toy gun in Cleveland. Both were black and were shot by white officers. Recently released security footage shows officers zooming onto the playground where Rice was playing with the toy. One jumps out of the squad car and shoots him within seconds, despite two 911 calls telling police the gun was “probably fake.”
In October, investigative journalism site ProPublica published its review of federal data on the more than 1,200 deadly police shootings that occurred between 2000 and 2012. The site found that young black males are 21 times more likely to die at the hands of a police officer than young white males.
“No question, there are all kinds of racial disparities across our criminal justice system,” University at Albany Professor Colin Loftin, a violence expert, told the site. “This is one example.”
The disparity brings up a bigger question for those critical of the Ferguson decision: Why are blacks so much more likely to come in contact with America’s law enforcement systems in the first place? A 2013 Pew Research study found that young black men were six times more likely than their white counterparts to be imprisoned. In 2010, more than 4,000 black men per 100,000 were in jail, compared to just 678 white men per 100,000.
Some say this comes from a propensity by some blacks to commit more crime. But studies contradict this assertion. A 2011 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration on illegal drug use, for example, found drug use roughly equal among blacks and whites. Despite this, aggressive policing in low-income black neighborhoods has resulted in blacks being three times more likely to be arrested on drug charges than whites. Higher poverty rates among blacks in America are also part of the vicious cycle, sucking young black men into the justice system when few educational or employment opportunities are available in their communities.
Lack of law enforcement accountability
Situations like those in Ferguson, Mo., and Beavercreek, Ohio also underline difficulties in holding law enforcement accountable. The list of officers who have shot unarmed black men and received little or no disciplinary action is long, and it includes Roach, Wilson and Sean Williams, the Beavercreek officer who shot Crawford III. While Roach was indicted a month after the shooting in OTR, it was on misdemeanor charges for which he was later acquitted.
More recently, grand juries have declined to hand down indictments against Williams and Wilson. That’s incredibly rare. State grand juries indict the vast majority of cases presented to them by prosecutors, legal experts say. It’s often a quick, easy process for a prosecutor seeking to pursue a case. But the grand jury proceedings for Wilson in Ferguson and Williams in Beavercreek were painstaking and took months.
Witnesses gave different versions of events in the Ferguson case. Many say Brown had his hands up in surrender when he was shot; others dispute this. Wilson testified Brown tried to take his gun and was charging directly at him when Wilson fired the fatal shot. Some have questioned his testimony, or at least suggested that discrepancies among witnesses mean there should be a trial.
Experts say both prosecutors and juries tend to assume that police were following the law.
“There is built-in leeway for police, and the very breadth of this leeway is why criminal charges against police are so rare,” police oversight lawyer Walter Katz told The Nation Nov. 24.
In the aftermath of the Ferguson decision, President Barack Obama has proposed a $263 million effort to reform law enforcement with new trainings and lapel-mounted cameras for police officers.
An unsympathetic judge
Last week’s demonstrations in Cincinnati were mostly peaceful, though 15 were arrested and at least eight spent the Thanksgiving holiday behind bars. Hamilton County Judge Melissa Powers deemed that group, who were arrested on I-75, a “flight risk.”
Although the protesters were charged with misdemeanors at their arraignments Nov. 26, Powers ordered them to wear electronic monitoring devices.
And even though seven of the eight paid the $3,000 bail set that day, they were held over Thanksgiving because the office that provides the EMDs was closed and would not reopen until Dec. 1.
Hamilton County Judge Ted Berry overturned the requirement for the monitoring devices Nov. 28 and the protesters who paid bail were freed.
Families of the protesters called the monitoring device requirement “vindictive” and “political.” ©