Chokehold on justice

Cars come to a stop on North Miami Avenue in Midtown as protesters march in the street on Sunday.
Cars come to a stop on North Miami Avenue in Midtown as protesters march in the street on Sunday. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Something is fundamentally, deeply wrong with race relations in this country when African Americans and civil-rights activists take to the streets spontaneously in 170 communities, including Miami this past weekend, to protest the use of deadly force by police officers against unarmed victims.

The protests constitute a plea for justice that no American, particularly those involved in law enforcement and the administration of justice, can afford to ignore. Plainly, a significant proportion of citizens believes that the justice system fails to provide the kind of impartial justice that is supposed to be the birthright of all Americans, regardless of the color of their skin or their station in life. Sadly, recent events bear them out.

The system certainly did not work for the family of Michael Brown, an unarmed teen who was shot six times by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Testimony was presented in secret to a grand jury that cleared officer Darren Wilson. Case closed. Nor did it work for Eric Garner on Staten Island, who died after a squad of police stopped him for selling loose cigarettes, a minor infraction, and placed him in a chokehold. The case was presented to another grand jury in secret. Result: no indictment, case closed.

Skeptics believe protestors would not be happy unless the police officers were punished, regardless of whether their actions constituted a violation of law. That view is wrong. Those two dramatic outcomes sparked the recent wave of protests, but this is about much more than just two cases.

▪ It’s about what happened to Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old with a toy gun killed by a Cleveland police officer. Surveillance video shows the boy being shot within two seconds of a patrol car stopping near him at a playground. It’s about Jonathan Ferrell, an unarmed man seeking help after a car crash who was shot 10 times by a Charlotte police officer last year. The officer was charged with manslaughter but has yet to make his first court appearance.

▪ On a larger scale, it’s about the 462 fatal police shootings reported by the FBI across the country last year. The victims are disproportionately black or members of another minority. The vast majority of the shootings are rarely questioned, but those that are rarely result in prosecution.

▪ Closer to home, it is about the fact that there have been multiple, repeated instances of controversial police shootings in Florida in the past 20 years, yet not a single prosecutor has charged an officer with an on-duty shooting during that period. As Herald reporter David Ovalle noted in a story over the weekend, the 1993 ruling in a case that led to the acquittal of the last officer tried for a Miami-Dade shooting has made it practically impossible to get a conviction that withstands appeal.

Police officers should not have to worry about being second-guessed every time they draw their weapons.

But surely the same rules of fairness and justice that apply to the rest of us apply to the guardians of the law. And just as surely, the perception that the police are there to serve and protect everyone — black or white, resident of Liberty City or Coral Gables — is necessary for them to perform their jobs safely and effectively.

Police, prosecutors and elected officials must lead the way in making this a transformative moment in race relations. If not, all the protests become wasted energy, and lessons are left unlearned. And next time — and, sad to say, there will be a next time — the lessons will be more painful.