by Ron Hosko president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, served as assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation until April 2014.
Last week, a New York grand jury declined to indict a police officer who, in efforts to restrain a non-compliant suspect, held him in what many saw as a chokehold. Their announcement came in the wake of public uproar over controversial events nearly 1,000 miles away in Ferguson, Mo.
Americans were fixated on a St. Louis County, Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer, Darren Wilson, for shooting at an 18-year-old aggressor following a convenience store robbery.
Although the facts of the cases are dramatically different, good people have raised legitimate questions about police tactics and a perceived divide between law enforcement and at-risk communities.
But it is time to take a step back and look at the long-term ramifications of the behavior of those surrounding the ordeals – the media, the Obama administration and radical activists.
In addition to exacerbating the problems in Ferguson, all three have contributed to an epidemic that will most adversely affect those for whom they claim to advocate. Their insistence that law enforcement is inherently biased against or willfully ignorant in their dealings with the African-American community is transparently political.
Their words and actions have insinuated – if not altogether declared – that America’s police work actively in opposition to the people they are supposed to serve. In sowing these seeds of distrust and discontent in our inner cities, those seeking to undermine law enforcement are implying that police are simply untrustworthy, making it less likely those living in at-risk communities will cooperate with the very officers who seek to protect them. Without civilian cooperation, the police cannot keep communities safe.
The Obama administration set the tone by sending three representatives to the funeral of Michael Brown. It is reasonable to assume that in doing so, the White House was demonstrating they believed Brown to be the victim and the police officer to be the aggressor.
The Obama administration knew what it was doing when they invited radical racial activists, such as the Rev. Al Sharpton – who owes a whopping $4.5 million in back taxes – to participate in a “civil rights” discussion at the White House. Of course, this discussion resulted not in a call for greater accountability in urban communities, but instead, in additional directives for police, yet again implying that law enforcement created the catastrophe we’re experiencing, not criminals.
This false narrative, accepted by too many as true, imposes a chilling effect on the decision-making of good police officers across the country. Instead of maintaining the confidence necessary to adequately and competently perform their jobs, leaders in the law enforcement community worry that cops will second-guess their training for fear that their actions will be characterized as racist, malicious, unrestrained or irresponsible.
We witnessed a gut-wrenching example of this very form of contrived circumspection when police stood by as the town of Ferguson disintegrated into mob rule and a dozen local businesses were burned to the ground. Law enforcement, having in August been criticized as hyper-militarized and heavy-handed, mutely looked on as the St. Louis suburb was ignited, crushing the spirit of countless residents who watched their American Dreams go up in smoke.
These false ideas ultimately served to denigrate due process protections and the rule of law in our nation. While Officer Wilson was exonerated by a grand jury for his split-second decision-making on that August afternoon, he was unjustly regarded as “guilty until proven innocent” in the court of public opinion. His life is forever threatened and his family will always be at risk.
Many yearned for a scalp so desperately that they quickly discounted inconvenient facts, while demanding their desired result. As the grand jury discovered after weeks of testimony from dozens of witnesses, Michael Brown was the aggressor on August 9th. Brown controlled his own fate, Brown made his own flawed decisions.
The reason Officer Wilson intersected Brown had nothing to do with biased policing. The fateful meeting occurred because Brown had just committed a felony by stealing cigars and assaulting the store worker who challenged him. Notably, Brown wasn’t stealing food because he was hungry or drink because he was thirsty and had no money. He stole cigars. Why? Because he could. One need only observe his willingness to menace the store employee to get what he wanted to conclude that Officer Wilson received similar treatment.
The remarkably uncurious press seemed all too willing to make this about a white cop shooting an unarmed black teenager, instead of finishing that clause with “…who had just committed a felony.” In efforts to sensationalize what was otherwise a local crime story, hundreds of members of the media descended upon Ferguson, attempting to portray the events occurring as part of a larger injustice imposed on black citizens by a reckless justice system. Their presence and excessive coverage served only to fan the flames.
There are real and meaningful justice reforms that must be made to protect our communities and ensure the rights of all citizens. Those begin with an honest assessment of the threats to our communities as well as training and funding of the police rather than the cynical blame-shifting of Ferguson.
As we learn more about the case in New York, it also serves as an opportunity to get it right this time. Let’s hope we all seize upon it.