Thursday, May 01, 2008

Update on the Sean Bell Case

Head to the website: Justice for Sean Bell


Published on Saturday, April 26, 2008 by the New York Daily News
It’s Our Duty to Protest Bell Decision
by Errol Louis

It was a disaster that leaves a large swath of the population with the sense that the odds are rigged against them, the cops are out of control, and the courts are no place to look for justice.

It didn’t have to be that way.

Sitting in the front row of the courtroom as the verdict was read, I was amazed at how Cooperman gave the case a narrow reading that mentioned the flaws and inconsistencies of the prosecution case, but ignored the gaping holes in the defense version of what happened outside the Kalua that fateful night in 2006.

The detectives’ defense depended on the notion that they identified themselves as officers, ordered Bell and his companions to surrender, and reacted when Bell tried to drive away.

But the lieutenant in charge of the operation testified that he never heard his companions ID themselves, and the first outside officers to arrive on the scene testified that they didn’t see the detectives wearing badges. Cooperman gave no indication the inconsistencies mattered.

Cooperman also skipped any mention of whether the level of deadly force applied — dozens of shots fired at unarmed men who committed no crime — made any difference.

If all three officers on trial had done what Detective Michael Oliver did — empty their clips, reload and fire again — nearly 100 bullets would have flown. Would that be considered reckless?

I pray we never have to find out.

The next act in this drama will be a series of demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience, led by the Rev. Al Sharpton. They will be designed to make the whole city feel the deep unease and smoldering anger now felt by the Bell family and its supporters in the civil rights community.

It’s not an idle threat. Twenty years ago, in demonstrations called Days of Outrage, Sharpton and a surprisingly small band of nonviolent protesters shut down the Brooklyn Bridge and brought the subway system to a standstill simply by jumping down on the tracks at strategically-selected stations.

A repeat of that campaign — call them the Cooperman Campaign — would horribly inconvenience Gotham and draw national attention.

It would also illustrate what George Orwell called “the moral dilemma that is presented to the weak in a world governed by the strong: Break the rules, or perish.”

People should not have to paralyze the city to make everyone see that police actions in the Bell case — whether viewed as a crime or horrible blunder — cannot be excused as “just one of those things.”

In this case, they must.

We have not heard Mayor Bloomberg, Commissioner Raymond Kelly or anyone else lay out a clear, convincing, detailed plan for ensuring there will be no more situations in which undercover officers rush up on unarmed, innocent people and unleash deadly force as if they’re in a war zone.

Sharpton and other protesters should nonviolently raise hell until we do. Protest in the face of unacceptable conditions is as patriotic as singing the “Star-Spangled Banner” on the Fourth of July.

And while many will heap scorn and gleeful contempt on demonstrators, the protesters should do what any patriot would if someone tries to drown them out during the national anthem.

Sing louder.

–Errol Louis

© Copyright 2008


Published on Wednesday, April 30, 2008 by The Miami Herald
Where Is Justice?
by Leonard Pitts Jr.

I want you to tell me how I can trust the justice system.

Mister Attorney General, the question is for you. And you too, Ms. Police Officer, Madame District Attorney and Mr. Judge. It is also for you, Mr. and Ms. Average Citizen. I realize this will be an engraved invitation for those crackpots who get their jollies flouting their hatefulness and ignorance on electronic message boards, and I’m willing to live with that because the question, I assure you, is in earnest.

Somebody tell me: How can I trust the justice system?

You will think this is about Sean Bell, the unarmed black man who died in a fusillade of 50 bullets from New York police on what was to have been his wedding day; the shooters were acquitted last week. But the question isn’t about Bell, at least not solely.

Rather, it’s about the fact that the justice system so often seems to have less justice in it where black people are concerned.

It’s about Amadou Diallo, shot at 41 times — hit 19 — by New York police while reaching for his wallet. It’s about Rodney King, beaten to pieces by L.A. police for a traffic violation. It’s about Arthur McDuffie, beaten to death by Miami police for a traffic violation. It’s about Jeffrey Gilbert, bones fractured by police who broke into the Greenbelt, Md., apartment of his girlfriend and pounced on him as he lay nude in bed because they mistakenly thought him a cop killer. It’s about L.A. police manufacturing and planting evidence. It’s about my son, stopped by police for driving with an ”obstructed” windshield — he had an air freshener in the shape of a Christmas tree dangling from his rear view mirror. It’s about studies documenting the enduring racial bias in our justice system so that, for example, African Americans account for 13 percent of all regular drug users, but 35 percent of those arrested, 55 percent of those convicted and 74 percent of those imprisoned, for drug possession.

And it’s about knowing the foregoing will be greeted with blithe indifference by those who find it convenient to believe the unjust treatment of African Americans is somehow excusable, understandable, merited or required.

I need no lectures to remind me that good people inhabit the system; my cousin is a federal prosecutor. Nor do I need any lectures on the heroism of cops; I’ve ridden with police, been protected by them and yield to no one in my admiration for those who do that job with honor.

So save the lectures, just give me an answer: How can I trust a system whose biases against people who look like me are simultaneously well-documented, yet happily ignored by those who resemble me not at all.

The question matters because without trust, the system doesn’t work. Everybody came down, and justifiably so, on the idiot rapper who said last year that he would not call police even if a serial killer were living next door. Unfortunately, fewer people bothered to ask where such profound distrust comes from. Fewer still bothered to ask what it leads to.

People don’t participate in systems they don’t trust. They don’t come forward, they don’t testify. So criminals go uncaptured and crimes, unpunished. Yet some black people apparently find that preferable to participating in a system they believe is rigged against them. I don’t agree with them, but before you condemn them, ask yourself: Would you play in a game refereed by someone who hated you? What’s the point?

In games as in life, you may not like an outcome, but if you believe it was fairly derived, you can at least live with it. Small wonder black people often find it difficult to live with this system. Last week’s acquittal will do nothing to change that.

So I’m serious. Somebody tell me how I can trust American justice. Somebody tell me why I should even try.

–Leonard Pitts Jr.

Copyright 2008 Miami Herald Media Co.


Published on Sunday, January 7, 2007 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Dying and living in 'COPS' America
by Richard Rapaport

Television producers John Langley, John Walsh and Chris Hansen may be the most dangerous men in America today. Langley is the producer of "COPS," Walsh, the creator of "America's Most Wanted," and Hansen, the correspondent for MSNBC's "To Catch a Predator." Collectively, they are point-people in a television genre acclimating Americans to a general dismemberment of once-cherished civil rights. On Wednesday, Jan. 10, the latest in police reality-television shows, "Armed & Famous," debuts on CBS. The show takes La Toya Jackson, Erik Estrada and others of American television's "B" celebrity list, gives them police training, and sends them out into the nation's dangerous streets to further blur the distinction between law enforcement and entertainment.

What is so pernicious about "Armed & Famous," "COPS," "America's Most Wanted," "To Catch a Predator," "S.W.A.T." and other of this criminal vérité programming? It is that they have helped set a national tone in which both the police and the policed have been convinced that appropriate law-enforcement correlates with high-speed chases, blocking and tackling, drawn weapons, and a shoot-first, think-later mind set. What connects November's "bust-in" killing of 88-year-old Kathryn Johnston in Atlanta with the slaying of bridegroom Sean Bell in Queens, N.Y., that same month is that both fell from fusillades fired by undercover police squads clearly doing more shooting than thinking.

That both Johnson and Bell were African Americans illuminates again the separate-but-unequal-law-enforcement system under which America still labors. In recent years, however, law enforcement has evolved into more of an equal opportunity destroyer, with high-impact policing increasingly intruding into the lives of Americans of every hue. Black and white substantiation of this trend came last month in a truly chilling report by the U.S. Justice Department, which disclosed that the United States now has both the largest prison population and highest rate of incarceration in the world, with 1 in 32 American adults enmeshed in the criminal-justice system.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a by-the-book, nothing-but-the-book regime of law enforcement is supplanting gentler, more discretionary varieties of civil-dispute resolution. Not so long ago, local cops had the authority to take the car keys from a tipsy, mortgage-paying citizen and drive him or her home. A deputy sheriff might confiscate a couple of joints from a high-school student and send her off with a warning. Confronting a marital dispute, community-savvy beat cops could decide to walk angry mates to different corners of the house and allow emotions to cool. Police stops then did not seem, as they do now, to be confrontations chilled by the potential for misunderstanding and even bloodshed.

Today, across America, there is a growing schism between police and the communities they are sworn to serve. Nor is the lot of today's sworn officer a happy one. Police today are caught in a dangerous socio-political riptide: If they exercise too blunt a force, they may end up getting themselves and others unnecessarily injured or killed. If they are too soft, their departments risk landing in the crosshairs of get-tougher-on-crime victim's rights organizations, stirred up by daily doses of reality crime shows such as "COPS."

"COPS" has wormed its way into the marrow of American cultural life since it first aired in March 1989, with more than 600 shows featuring nearly 150 different police and sheriff departments. The program has grossed more than $200 million in syndication and, along with its fugitive-tracking sibling, "America's Most Wanted," made Saturday evening crime and punishment night on the Fox Network.

"COPS" has succeeded spectacularly because it takes us on a titillating ride through trash-heap America. In those blighted, benighted streets, the poor, emotionally maimed, drug-addicted and merely addled, are pulled over, spreadeagled, cuffed, bullied, then made to jump through the hoops of criminal-law enforcement for our viewing pleasure. As "COPS' " Langley explained to an interviewer, the popularity of the show derives from "the adrenaline rush of not knowing what would happen at any time." So culturally hungry have we become for the kick of televised police chases, dramatic arrests and victim-ventilating psychodrama, that even the miscreants themselves seem untroubled at signing the releases allowing their generally imbecilic actions and law-enforcement reactions to be broadcast on national television.

What is so harmful about this mixture of real-life street tragedy and low-rent entertainment is that "COPS" and its brethren reduce our resistance to the kind of dehumanized ultra-violence that Anthony Burgess hypothesized in his then-seemingly satiric 1962 novel "A Clockwork Orange."

MSNBC's "To Catch a Predator" has a more focused, and perhaps an even more insidious intent, than "COPS." It aims at the cyberspace enticement of sexual predators. These online Lotharios may think they are in for a little under-age sex, but when they show up at the anonymous suburban split-level, the sting is sprung. Instead of 14-year-old Tiffany, it is Chris Hansen appearing in the name of us all to extract a humiliating confession. In his role as video Grand Inquisitor, Hansen also acts as agent for the swarm of cops lurking just outside waiting to take down the now-unmasked perv and haul him off to jail.

It is about as easy to defend the scummy subjects of "To Catch a Predator" as it is to try to justify drunken driving. Yet, isn't the chiseled, commanding Hansen acting an equally scummy role, engaging in the kind of fishing expedition that should be repugnant to those who recognize moral and constitutional danger in the dirty art of entrapment? This is especially so when that entrapment is designed first of all as popular entertainment.

The last word, however, on "To Catch a Predator" -- that it "has done more than any law we can create" -- came from a former Florida member of Congress named Mark Foley, a man who apparently knows more than a little about online predation.

A similarly chilling illustration of the growing acceptance of -- or at least acquiescence to -- escalating police use of force, are the cop shows lionizing America's special weapons & tactics (SWAT) squads, a law-enforcement trend ascendant since the 1980s. Together, the Arts & Entertainment Network's Kansas City "S.W.A.T.," Dallas "S.W.A.T.," and Detroit "S.W.A.T.," culturally consecrates activities that have historically been the province of the military engagements in places where the Bill of Rights do not apply. Deconstruct the following bit of copy on the A&E Web site: "Do you have what it takes to talk the talk with the toughest officers in law enforcement? Before suiting up, take a look at this list of lingo designed to help civilians hang tight with members of SWAT."

This puffery, like the shows themselves, invites us to celebrate the Heckler & Koch machine pistols, Parker-Hale Model 85 sniper rifles, flash-bang grenades, armored personnel carriers and other paraphernalia of what is essentially infantry war-fighting transferred to American streets. What makes the phenomenon especially scary is that the SWAT mentality bases itself on that fundamental soldierly paradigm that divides the world into friend and foe.

For today's SWAT teams, the enemy is often us, and the kind of 50-round barrage that killed Sean Bell or the fatal kick-in-the-door assault by police into the home of Kathryn Johnston, becomes numbingly normal. What do we do, short of throwing up our arms and surrendering to the inevitability of militarized domestic police forces? First, a de-escalation of the continuing domestic law-enforcement arms race might be a place to begin.

A 1999 Cato Institute study found that between 1995 and 1997 alone, the U.S. Defense Department passed along 1.2 million items of military equipment to domestic police forces. Fueled by this largesse, thousands of American towns and cities such as Fresno, Germantown, Tenn., and Sunrise, Fla., now support SWAT teams. There is a self-propagating aspect to the spread of SWAT teams: To justify the added expense of a paramilitary force, there is a continual push to expand its role into the realm of daily policing. Thus is laid the institutional groundwork for Johnston and Bell-style confrontations in which overwhelming force and military rules of engagement are the catalyst for unnecessary tragedy.

Along with de-escalation, police tactics need to de-emphasize automatic weapons, sniper rifles and carved-in-stone procedures in favor of policies that are friendlier and less likely to get our fellow citizens, either police or civilians, killed. It might not be a bad idea, as well, to enter into disarmament talks with the television executives, producers and reporters, who have worked so cannily to inculcate the "COPS," "America's Most Wanted," "To Catch a Predator," "S.W.A.T." -- and now, "Armed & Famous" -- mentality that is contributing to making America a deadlier, if marginally more entertaining, place.

Richard Rapaport is a visiting scholar at the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies. He an be reached at

© 2006 The San Francisco Chronicle



"Gi i finakpo' ti ta hahasso i fino' i enimigu-ta, lao i taifino' i amigu-ta siha." Martin Luther King Jr.

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