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Op-ed

Commentary: Remember Justine Damond? Delayed or absent police accountability transcends race.

Everybody suffers when cops aren't held to a higher standard

JULY 18, 2017: Maryan Herffernan and John Ruszczyk, father of Justine Damond, brother John Ruszczyk and Katarina Ruszczyk speak to the media outside their house in Sydney, New South Wales. (Dylan Robinson/Newspix/Getty Images)

The entire world right now is focused on the Minneapolis Police Department because three of its officers knelt on the back and neck of an unarmed black man named George Floyd, and the other stood nearby and did nothing to stop them. Four days after Floyd's death, former officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, was charged with murder in Floyd's death. Wednesday, nine days after Floyd's death, the other three fired officers were taken into custody and booked on charges of aiding and abetting murder, and aiding and abetting manslaughter.

Meanwhile, in Louisville, Kentucky, the police officers who shot and killed Breonna Taylor in a late night drug raid in March remain at large, having been placed on "administrative reassignment."

A significant impetus for the protests around the country has been the feeling of anger, not just at the fact that these incidents happened, but at how long it has taken the police officers involved in these two incidents to face charges for their actions. On that point, I am in strong agreement with the protesters, as I've already stated.

Additionally, it is asserted that the fact that the officers took so long to face charges is evidence of racism. On that point, I am not so sure.

I've been writing about police issues from a conservative/libertarian perspective for a long, long time. I've probably read more data and studies on race and policing than just about anyone in America. I've read the Harvard study which suggests that black and Hispanic citizens are more likely in some jurisdictions to have force used against them by police, but not more likely to be shot. A couple years ago I was sent a review copy of a book that showed evidence that black people were targeted by police in North Carolina in traffic stops, and I read the whole thing. I am also aware of the studies that have tended to show, in examining some locations, that there is little or no bias in the application of police force.

As I get older, I feel more comfortable answering questions that I don't have the data for with "I'm not sure," so if you pressed me for an answer about whether black people or other minorities are systematically targeted by cops, I would say, "I'm not sure," but I think the actual answer is "it depends." Or, more fully, "It depends on where in the country you are and what police department you are dealing with." That's the best explanation I can come up with for the conflicting mountains of evidence out there, most of which is pulled from disparate locations. It also comports with what I have experienced with studying the practices of individual police departments, which is that there are widely divergent behaviors from city to city and jurisdiction to jurisdiction when it comes to police.

A separate question, which is far less studied, is the extent to which the race of police officers and/or their victims matters in the decision of whether police are held accountable with criminal charges. The reason there is a dearth of scientific study on this issue is probably largely due to small sample size: Officers are so seldom held accountable with criminal charges regardless of the circumstances that the boogeyman of the small sample size likely would make any study that attempted to examine it subject to legitimate criticism. As I've noted before, when New York City cops shoot 180 citizens over a 10-year period and only one of those cops is convicted of a crime of any sort (and only three are even charged), you're likely looking at an issue that is resistant to systemic study.

People do believe that it exists, and believe it strongly, however, and so what occurs tends to largely be an argument over anecdotes.

Several days ago, I listened to the entirety of Rush Limbaugh's appearance on "The Breakfast Club." During the course of the interview, Charlamagne tha God and Limbaugh had the following fascinating exchange:

CTG: You know what white privilege is? White privilege is that what happened to George Floyd wouldn't have happened to a white man.

[crosstalk]

Limbaugh: If what happened to George Floyd had happened to a white man, we probably wouldn't have even heard about it.
CTG: You definitely would have heard about it. You definitely would have heard about it. [Crosstalk]

....

DJ Envy: He's right, Charlamagne, he's right. You wouldn't have heard about it, and you know why? Because that cop would have been arrested, he would have been fired, he would have been charged with murder, a long time before all this. Immediately. Before the video had hit the social media, he'd have been charged, fired, arrested, locked up and all that, if George Floyd was white.

CTG: There's a Muslim officer in Minneapolis now doing twelve and a half years because he accidentally killed a white woman on duty. So I don't get it.

From there the conversation moved on to other topics, and the tragic case of Justine Damond (whose name was not mentioned, and who probably 95% of America has never heard of) was not mentioned again.

But it made me think back to that case, which I hadn't thought of in months, and so I went back and looked at the facts of that case. Here is a case where the exact opposite of the George Floyd situation happened. A black cop shot a completely unarmed (literally barefoot) white female in an affluent neighborhood who was only in interaction with the cops because she called them for help to report a possible rape. The officer's defense was that he shot Damond in the chest because she slapped the back of the police cruiser and startled him (of note, fingerprints were taken of the vehicle and none belonged to Damond, calling even this hilariously flimsy excuse into question).

The parallels are eerie and offer the rare opportunity for the one-for-one comparison: the incidents involved the same police department, the same prosecutor who was responsible for making a charging decision, and occurred less than three years apart.

Well, in fact, were the cops fired, arrested, charged, and locked up before the time it would take to upload a video to social media? In fact, they were not. In spite of widespread local outcry, a grand jury was not even convened to consider charges against the police officer, Mohammed Noor, until February 2018, almost seven months later. He was not charged until March 2018, eight months after the shooting. He remained with the police department (albeit on administrative leave) until he was charged.

Outrageously, when investigating the killing, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which was tasked with conducting an independent investigation of the shooting, obtained a warrant of Damond's home and searched it, even though she was shot and killed outside of her home and the undisputed evidence was that she was not armed. Imagine the indignity of the police rifling through your stuff, undoubtedly looking for dirt to smear Damond with in the media, after having killed her. What possible evidence that was actually germane to their killing could they have found?

In December 2017, five months after Damond was killed, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said basically the same crap he said when explaining why no one had been charged three days after Floyd's death: "While some clamor for swift justice, only careful, detailed work and careful analysis brings us real justice. That is what this case deserves and that is what it will get." He said this, by the way, in the midst of an apology for having had the temerity to have privately criticized the pace of the BCA's investigation.

It may well be the case (and probably is) that black people, at least in certain locations, are subject to more use of force, and perhaps unjustified use of force by police. But from what I have seen, police and the timid prosecutors who work with them are just as likely to inexcusably drag their feet and victim blame when the victim of a police killing is white as they are when the victim is black.

They certainly did in the case of Justine Damond. And whenever it happens, regardless of the race of the cop or the victim, we have to demand better accountability than what we have been getting.

One last thing…
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