The acquittal of former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley in the 2011 shooting death of Anthony LaMar Smith represents the depth, the breadth and width of the immorality that characterizes too many police departments in this nation.
Likewise, the reluctance of Columbus Police Chief Kim Jacobs to call Officer Joseph Bogard to accountability in the brutal beating of 31-year-old Timothy Davis reveals yet again a system which protects excessive and often cruel violence of police officers. Jacobs, upon reviewing body camera footage of the Timothy Davis arrest and beating, later removed Bogard from duty, taking his badge and gun, pending an investigation of the incident, but her reluctance to take action against the officer drew anger from a community already reeling from too many cases of excessive police violence.
In the body cam footage, Bogard is heard making statements about what he thinks should be done to Davis, at one point saying he was “aroused” by what was going on. In relieving Bogard, Jacobs said she was “sad and embarrassed” by what she heard from the body cam footage, but the head of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) in Columbus, Jason Pappas, while saying that the statements made by Bogard were “inappropriate,” indicated that the officer’s actions were within department guidelines.
Those guidelines, in Columbus, St. Louis and in so many cities are what is at issue here; those guidelines make it legal and right for police officers to use excessive force, even resulting in death, for too many suspects. To beat and maim and kill suspects, many unarmed, for minor offenses is, simply, immoral.
It is a well known and widely held belief that all an officer has to say is that he or she was in fear for his or her life. Once that is said, all bets are off that the officer will be held to accountability for excessive force, even if that force results in death or serious injury. If that statement is fed to a jury, most of which are all-white or nearly so, it is likely that the police officer will walk, going back onto the streets to continue a campaign of violent terror against unarmed suspects, again, too many of whom are black or brown.
In the case of Jason Stockley, the officer was pursuing Smith in a car chase. According to reports, Stockley was heard to say that he was going to kill Smith. When the chase came to an end, Stockley reportedly got out of his cruiser, went to the driver’s side of the car and shot Smith several times, killing him. Stockley said that Smith was reaching for a gun, but attorneys for Smith said the gun found in Smith’s car was planted, and forensic evidence revealed only the DNA of Stockley on the weapon; none of Smith’s DNA was on the gun.
Officers too often appear to engage in ultra-violent behavior, because they can. The system, beginning with the police officers, but including the prosecutor, the grand jury, the judge and the jury, supports the police behavior regardless of how bad the “optics” are, continuing the false narrative that the police are “heroes” fighting against an enemy, which again, too often, are black and brown people. The protection of officers by the system seems to be no less immoral than that of the Roman Catholic Church which for decades protected priests who molested children, making excuses for them and sending them to different parishes to carry out their perversions elsewhere.
This excessive violence carried out by police, and the buy-in of that violence by the system and by the society at large, reveals the immoral behavior that white supremacy promotes, encourages and protects. Too many officers, it seems, have a genuine fear of black and brown people, true, but they also have a false sense of their own importance. They know they can throw their weight around, commit criminal acts and then blame the suspects – and get away with it.
That is immoral.
In the most recent case in Columbus, Ohio, FOP head Jason Pappas actually put out a statement that basically condoned the behavior of Bogard. The words heard that were so troubling to the mayor, city council and police chief were “just words,” Pappas said, and he also reminded the public that police are “allowed to kick and punch.”
True, they are, but perhaps they should not be. Perhaps police officers throughout the nation ought to be required to get to know people of color before they act in a violent way because they are “in fear for their lives.” Perhaps police departments ought to engage in different training of their officers, training that teaches officers how to control their anger and their subsequent actions. It is the behavior and the condoning of the behavior by the system and the society which is immoral.
If officers who engage in appropriately violent behavior are called to accountability on their actions, perhaps some of this legalized lawlessness would stop. In Utah, the detective who accosted a nurse when she refused to allow him to draw blood from an unconscious patient was fired. That encounter indicated to this writer that much of this violence is just about not wanting to be questioned or challenged.
Immorality based on racial prejudice, beliefs, bigotry and hatred is a part of America’s very foundation, but it needs to stop. We are not a “country of laws” so long as this kind of blatant immoral behavior is allowed.
Rev. Susan Smith is available to do workshops on the difficulty of the Bible and the Constitution to end racism in America.