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Is This Justice?

Apr 25, 2008

Today I've had two stories on my mind, both really making me question how I feel about the concept of justice in this country. It's a difficult issue for me, since I have conflicting opinions based on both direct experience and things I've read. Police brutality and abuse of power are some of the worst 'gray areas' we have to wrestle with, since there is no clear way to either classify the problem or solve it.

I'm not sure how many of you outside of the United States are aware of the Sean Bell verdict, which has sparked outrage in my home state of New York today. The basics of the story are that a 23 year old black man named Sean Bell was shot 50 times outside of a Queens nightclub in November of 2006 by 3 police officers, one of whom fired 31 rounds. The officers have said they believed that one of Bell's companions was reaching for a weapon, although once the smoke cleared no weapon was found. The judge in the case who cleared the officers today said that the testimony was simply not convincing or consistent. Apparently part of this is in relation to a large wrongful death suit being filed by the family, with the intimation being that some of the witnesses called being motivated more by money than truth. The verdict sparked anger within the black community, once again raising the specter of racism within the police force.

The other story that caught my eye today was that of a Chicago man who has died after being tased by police officers outside of a bar. This is an ongoing story and not all the facts are out, but if nothing else this is another story that emphasizes the fact that the Taser is potentially as lethal a weapon as a gun. In this case, the police have said that the man was not obeying orders and was in fact fighting with officers. Again, this story is in the early stages and there may be more facts to follow on exactly what led to the Taser being employed.

Both of these stories make me truly struggle with my opinion on the police, and by extension the notion of justice, in this country. We have seen story after story detailing the excesses and mistakes by those in uniform, and we have also seen countless stories showing courage and valor and the true conflict lies in discerning what happens in between. From the one angle, the Bell and Chicago stories both could be read as officers using necessary measures to ensure their safety, and I believe that an officer must place his safety as a top priority. Can any of us look one of these men or women in the face and honestly say, "I think you should err on the side of being hurt just in case you're wrong?" I know I can't. As many of these stories as we read, we also know that officers are shot in routine traffic stops and gunned down trying to protect the innocent.

That said, I must tell you that I found it remarkable that during the after verdict press conference only Detective Marc Cooper seemed to display emotion and actually apologize to the family sincerely. The other two officers and the man who conducted the press conference seemed indifferent to the man killed, if not defiant about the verdict, saying "I spell 'relief' N-O-T G-U-I-L-T-Y." Now I realize that the police department is a family, and this man is happy to see that a brother has been acquitted, but is this really the statement to make in the case of an innocent man being killed by the police? Yes, it's very possible this was a mistake but the victim was unarmed and was due to be married in a few hours. Could they not manage a little bit more sensitivity, if only for the public? To me it smells of a sense of police infallibility, and maybe that should tell us something.

As for the Chicago case, since the details are still emerging I have less of a sense of who was more in the wrong here, but there have been an increasing number of these Taser deaths that at the very least should make them the last resort just before drawing a gun. While they may not be lethal by design, they clearly have a lethal potential. It is really only intent that separates the Taser from the Glock, the potential is equal in both weapons. The Taser simply should not be used as casually as it seems to be.

Is it really any wonder most Americans don't believe in law and order anymore? We face frivolity and disgrace in the courtrooms and potentially murderous behavior from those sworn to protect. Again, this is not  the rule but any system must be judged by the weakest of the links that form it and by that measure we have a lot that needs fixing in the "greatest nation in the world." I wonder if we'll have the bravery and maturity to do it?

So what do you think? Have any of you experienced either the true promise of justice or the dark side of the perversion of law? Please comment and let me know, or just chime in with your thoughts.