June 2, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — When a prosecutor in St. Louis, Missouri, couldn’t bring himself to convince a grand jury that a crime might have occurred when Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, the system failed. In real life, when a killing takes place, grand-jury indictments are never that hard to come by.
No such failure occurred in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, where a judge last month acquitted Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo of two counts of voluntary manslaughter for the shooting deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams. In the Brelo case, the system worked exactly as it should: There were several indictments, pretrial proceedings and motions, a bench trial, and a published decision where the judge laid out the reasons for Brelo’s acquittal. The entire process took about two-and-a-half years — not uncommon for a case with these dynamics.
Yet the people of Cleveland, much like Ferguson’s, took to the streets to protest the verdict. The reaction seems counterintuitive: If the system worked, why rage against it?
The reasons are legion and can’t simply be explained away with a single cause-and-effect analysis. But at its most basic, the two-part explanation goes something like this: One, the system works too well when the accused is a police officer. And two, the system works too well when the accused is a person of color. Combine the two, and we may begin to get a sense of why the protests have reached a tipping point. Implicit in the chant “black lives matter” is an indictment of the criminal justice system itself—discontent over a government structure that, for all its norms and standards, is governed by rules that lead to a different process and judgment depending on who stands accused.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for this double standard, and no thinkpiece or policy will ever fix it. But we can try to get to the bottom of why these fault lines exist in the first place. And how, from the Supreme Court all the way down to the local police chief, they’ve been enabled overtime. Only then will we understand, for example, why the case of another slain Cleveland resident, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, still remains under investigation. Or why Brelo’s daredevil frenzy atop a Chevy Malibu was found to be “reasonable.”
The process will not always lead to easy answers, if it leads to an answer at all. But taking them piece by piece, from the street stop to the sentencing, will help us better engage in these complicated discussions—a conversation where race, policing, and the rule of law are part of the same messy whole.
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