Why Don’t Cops Go to Jail?

Kajieme Powell Ferguson Missouri police undue force shooting knife

More than 300 African-Americans were extrajudicially killed by police officers, security guards, or vigilante lawmen in 2012. One of these was Trayvon Martin, shot to death by George Zimmerman, who was found not guilty under the infamous “Stand Your Ground” law of Florida (and twenty-two other states). In Ferguson, Missouri, 28-year-old police officer Darren Wilson was identified as the man who killed 18-year-old Mike Brown, and has gone into hiding while on paid administrative leave. No charges have yet been filed, despite an independent autopsy that has shot wooden pellet–sized holes in the police account of the incident, and Wilson has yet to face any real consequences.

A Gallup poll released in the wake of Mike Brown’s killing studied white and black Americans’ opinions of law enforcement, with startling results—startling not in black Americans’ low confidence, but in white Americans’ high confidence. When asked whether the high incarceration rate of African-American men is “mostly due to discrimination against blacks” or “mostly due to something else,” 80 percent of whites believed it was mostly due to “something else,” compared to only 48 percent of blacks. Knowing what we know—and what many of us categorically do not know, which is what it is like to be black in America—it is difficult to cry paranoia in the face of perceived discrimination.

Even so, as the saying goes, it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you. Can it be denied that, if not for the badge, radio, and short-sleeved collared shirt, the ever-growing number of African-American fatalities at the far end of police firearms would be second-degree murder in almost every case? Last summer, The Root put together a slideshow of twenty unarmed Black men killed by law enforcement officers. Some stories gained broader national attention than others, but collectively and individually these stories represent a fundamental and violent mistrust of black individuals, and particularly black men. 

The use of undue force by law enforcement (and wannabe law enforcement) are almost literally countless, not only for its apparent frequency but also for the dubious accounting for such incidents officially, legally, and in the public eye. Even Johannes Mehserle, the officer who famously shot Oscar Grant III in the back while Grant was lying face-down in the Fruitvale BART station, was found guilty of only involuntary manslaughter.

Hard data on the number of police officers who serve jail time for the use of undue force is difficult to find. Offenders are far more often suspended, either with or without pay, and often return to work once the media furor dies down, if there happens to be any in the first place. It is far easier to paint victims of lethal force as suspicious, threatening, or as matching the description of a suspected criminal than it is to demand accountability for the use of a firearm, whether fifty times or only once.

In Ferguson, two black men have been shot dead by police: Mike Brown and Kajieme Powell. Many more men and women have been arrested, tear-gassed, threatened, and intimidated. The fate of Mike Brown was decided by a single police officer. Darren Wilson does not represent every police officer in the country, nor even in Ferguson. There are good and decent policemen, policemen who have saved lives by placing themselves in danger. #NotAllCops are unduly violent. But #YesAllPeopleOfColor have been taught to assume they are. Police are only human—a point that has been raised in defense of (or, at least, in objective fairness to) the cop(s) who killed Kajieme Powell. This is not untrue. But a police force empowered to shoot first and ask questions never is keeping no peace. The uniform worn by police officers places them on a presumed moral pedestal, from which it seems very difficult to fall.

Follow John Sherman on Twitter @_john_sherman.

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