From 1967 Detroit To 2017, What Will It Take To Hold Police Officers Accountable?

Justice continues to be elusive for the families of black men killed by police.
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Dateline USA. Cops Kill Black Men with Impunity. It’s a headline that could appear any city newspaper in America, at almost any point in time. In this case, it’s Detroit 1967.

In what comes to be known as the Algiers Motel incident, police kill three young black men at the violent peak of the 1967 Detroit Riots, a cataclysmic event that left a total of 43 dead, and 342 injured.

With so much death and violence during the riot’s four-day span, the officers who committed the killings at the hotel hoped their acts of savagery would get buried among the chaos and carnage.

But when the smoke and ashes cleared, the awful truth was revealed. Three white police officers, part of a riot taskforce that was searching for a suspected sniper, had tried to wring information out of hotel guests by viciously beating nine of them. Two of the officers took things a step further and killed three African American males.

Charges of felonious assault, conspiracy, murder and conspiracy to commit civil rights abuse were filed against three officers, but the patrolmen— practitioners of the blue code of silence—refused to testify against each other. All three men were found not guilty.

The tragic story of the 1967 riots and the Algiers Motel Incident is now the subject of the big screen movie “Detroit,” which opens nationwide in theaters in August. Directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow—the driving force behind movies such as “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty”—Detroit promises to be a powerful, provocative movie that sheds light on the distrustful, contentious relationship that’s existed between police and the black community for decades.

“For many African Americans, police shootings have taken the form of tightly scripted horror films.”

Many activists see the movie as a badly needed shot in the arm to a debate that in recent months has suffered from battle fatigue. Whereas several years ago the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown caused national outrage and resulted in saturation news coverage, recent police shootings have barely registered a blip on the public outrage meter. As pundits and the news media have become desensitized by the sheer number of black men shot by police, many civil rights advocates are hoping Detroit restarts a conversation that finally addresses head on why things have changed so little in 50 years.

For many African Americans, police shootings have taken the form of tightly scripted horror films, where every scene has been heavily rehearsed.

According to the script, act one begins with police on patrol who encounter a black man who either moves “suspiciously” or “reaches” for a non-existent knife or gun, forcing officers who are in mortal fear of their lives to shoot the suspect into oblivion. In act two, after video evidences emerges that contradicts the police version of events, a skilled defense attorney or police union representative steps before a pool of cameras to tell the public that what happened before the filming started, what we can’t see in the video, is really what’s important. In act three, during the trial, if there is one at all, an emotional cop assumes the role of victim and repeats the “fear for his life” narrative to a jury. And finally, the jury—boxed in by narrow jury instructions—acquits the police officer while the devastated black family holds a press conference and cries for justice. The end.

Last week, we saw this tired script played out again when police officer Jeronimo Yanez, charged with second degree manslaughter in the shooting death of motorist Philandro Castile, was acquitted of all charges. Yanez’s reason for pulling over Castile was supposedly a broken taillight, but on a police radio call recording that later surfaced, he is heard saying he’s stopping Castile because his “wide set nose” looks like that of a robbery suspect.

Dashcam video also appears to contradict Yanez’s claims that Castile’s erratic behavior caused him to fear for his life. In the video, Castile is heard calmly responding to the officer’s questions, even volunteering that he has a firearm in his possession that he’s licensed to carry. Castile’s calm demeanor seems to put Yanez’s partner, Joseph Kauser, at ease, who is seen in the video striking a relaxed pose on the other side of vehicle. In fact, when called as a witness, Kauser testified that he never saw a gun in Castile’s car nor perceived the situation as potentially threatening—that is until gunshots started ringing out.

“The acquittals in 1967 and 2017 highlight the significant barriers that African Americans face in holding police officers accountable.”

And yet despite the incriminating testimony and video evidence, Yanez was able—like so many other trigger-happy police officers—walk out of court a free man. The jury’s not guilty verdict left Castile’s family, pundits and thousands of people shocked and dismayed, asking what will it take to hold police officers accountable?

In contrast, few people expected the police officers involved in the shooting at the Algiers Motel incident to be found guilty. The murders happened in 1967—a time of racial strife where Blacks still lived in segregated housing, black men were routinely referred to as “boys” and “niggers,” and justice in the courts was ambiguous at best. No one expected white police officer to confess the truth and expose the brutality that culminated in the cold- blooded murders of three black men. There were no body or dash cameras back then, and despite the eyewitness testimony of two white women and several black men who survived the savage violence perpetuated under the color of state sanctioned authority, the officers were acquitted after a state murder trial. They were also later acquitted after a federal civil rights trial. Incredulous on-lookers called the ridiculous verdicts a whitewash of a police slaying.

Fast forward to 2017. Advances in technology—a myriad of civil rights laws, nationwide protests and federal civil rights investigations and lawsuits aimed at ending discriminatory law enforcement practices and wanton police brutality—have led to a different set of expectations. The compelling dash cam video evidence released following Yanez’s trial, the live Facebook video stream posted by Castile’s girlfriend in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, and the powerful implicating testimony from a police officer who was on the scene, led many people to believe a guilty verdict was all but assured. But despite the bevy of evidence, Castile’s shooter was acquitted.

The acquittals in both cases highlight the significant barriers that African Americans face in holding police officers accountable. Whether it’s a broken criminal justice system that boxes the jury in because of antiquated legal standards set by a Supreme Court in the 1980s; or the implicit bias that poisons the hearts and minds of decent men and women who deny that they are racist, justice continues to be elusive for the families of black men killed by police.

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