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Do police rush to judgment when they investigate themselves?


Inglewood, California Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks faces a dilemma that many big city police chiefs face when their officer’s gun down unarmed civilians under dubious circumstances, and those civilians in almost all cases are young African Americans or Latinos. In this case the victim was 19 year-old Michael Byoune. The deep suspicion is that police routinely bend, twist and massage testimony and evidence to whitewash and ultimately exonerate officers. The way to counter that is to conduct a thorough and honest investigation and if the officer(s) are found guilty of wrongdoing impose swift punishment. But that almost always draws loud protests from police unions and some city officials.

The Byoune killing by any standard was a bad shooting. In fact, it evoked instant comparisons to the killing of bride-groom-to-be Sean Bell by NYPD officers in 2007. Bell, as Byoune, was a young African-American male. Bell and Byoune were unarmed. There is no indication that he, as Bell, was involved in any gang or criminal involvement. From tapes and news clips, Inglewood police officers riddled the car that Byoune was in with bullet holes. The car Bell was in was also riddled with gunfire.

The police killings of young blacks such as Bell and Byoune spark momentary outrage and demands for federal or local investigations, and prosecutions of the officers. That presents two problems.

The first is getting police officials to conduct an investigation that’s not weighted heavily toward the police version of the events when there is considerable witness evidence and testimony that contradicts the officer’s version. The second is getting a prosecution and then a conviction of the officers involved. The acquittal of the three NYPD officers charged in the shooting death of Bell was stark proof of that.

The frequent media portrayal of young blacks as crime-prone, drug-dealing gangsters, the gang and murder violence that continues to wrack many black neighborhoods in Los Angeles and other cities and the glorification of the thug lifestyle by many young blacks reinforces negative racial perceptions. This makes many whites, non-blacks, and even many blacks guarded, suspicious and fearful of blacks. It’s still virtually impossible to convince many jurors, that some police lie, beat, maim, and even kill unarmed suspects. That goes for judges too. A New York Supreme Court judge acquitted the officers charged in the Bell shooting.

Since there are no ironclad standards of what is or isn’t acceptable use of force, or what degree of force is excessive, it often comes down to a judgment call by the officer. That creates just enough doubt that if the victim no matter how innocent he may appear to be was not the aggressor, than he at least put up enough resistance to the arrest to justify some use of force to restrain him, or worse the use of deadly force.

The near universal failure of police officials to take punitive action against officers that overuse deadly force almost always starts with the investigation. Eye witnesses are not sworn.

And invariably when evidence contradicts the officers’ version of events, police officials reflexively rely on the testimony of the officers to sustain their version of what happened.

This insures that police officials will rule in nearly every case that the officers did not violate any department policies or procedures on the use of deadly force. Chicago is an immediate and tragic example of that. The past couple years, Chicago police have shot a civilian on average once every 10 days. More than 100 people have been killed in the last decade; 250 others have been injured.
But only a tiny fraction of shootings are ruled unjustified — less than 1 percent, police records and court testimony indicate. The secrecy in which the investigations are conducted and the perfunctory ruling that a shooting was in policy means that it is virtually impossible to determine how many are in fact legitimate. The Chicago police that killed were cleared almost in every case and that pattern is the same in dubious police shootings in other cities.

A fair and impartial investigation into the circumstances surrounding police killings, and that certainly includes the Byoune killing, must have one aim. That is to find out what went so horribly wrong that police had to resort to gunplay and then insure that there’s no repeat of the tragedy. These are the tough questions that then should be routinely asked in a truly impartial police investigation.

Did the officers give a warning before opening fire? Did they attempt to find out if the victim had a gun or weapon, or even in the case of Byoune was his car a deadly weapon, and was it an actual threat to the officer?  Do eyewitnesses corroborate the officer’s version of the shooting?

The  Byoune and Bell killings, as well as those of the other young blacks, demand answers, honest answers. Police officials should give them. When they don’t they simply reinforce the suspicion that police rush to judgment to exonerate wrongdoing by their own.

– Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency:
How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).