You are all well aware how much I like to rail endlessly about police brutality. The temptation has been strong, but I held off on the New Year's Eve BART shooting until some sort of administrative decision was made regarding the offending officer. Well, now that he has been charged with murder shortly after his resignation I think that we have enough context to make a few conclusions.
Theoretically I should be pleased with the short-term outcome: prosecution on a murder charge rather than a lesser offense or, as often happens, no charges whatsoever. Unfortunately I have little faith in the verdicts returned by the inevitable all-white jury with very specific ideas about what cops are allowed to do to black males. Alternatively, they may choose to go with the "one minority juror" system which virtually guarantees a mistrial. Regardless of what happens next it's good to see that he was prosecuted, though.
But does the DA actually deserve applause for this? Was there any alternative to prosecution for murder or something similar? The entire world has seen video – from numerous angles – of a police officer standing up, fumbling with his holster (which he had plenty of time to do because the suspect was cuffed, not resisting, and being kneeled upon by another officer) and then shooting a kid in the back for absolutely no reason whatsoever. This is no Rodney King video with margins just big enough for the professional cop apologists to offer an alternative version of events. The video is what it is and not even the most imaginitive Fraternal Order of Police rep or AM Talk Radio host can concoct a plausible explanation for the shooting.
The truly sad part about this story isn't the pointlessness of the victim's death or the brazen manner in which police abuse their limited authority. No, the sad part is how the story would have unfolded without the timely intervention of camera phones. Imagine that the folks on the trains didn't notice the incident until after it happened or didn't think to record it. What would be the reaction in that case?
Well, first of all we wouldn't be talking about it. It would be just another one-paragraph story on page 18 of the Metro section – "Umpteenth young black male dies in police custody." Yawn. Second, the police would have been able to tell with impunity their boilerplate tale of violent, resisting suspects who left no option other than the application of lethal force. You are familiar with the story by now. A scrawny black kid goes berserk and has the strength of 20 stout longshoremen, flipping over cars and coming close to killing two officers simultaneously with his bare hands. When the officers were just inches from death at the hands of a madman, they were left with no alternative except to shoot him with heavy hearts and deep sadness. After a few days of "paid administrative leave" (i.e., vacation) the deeply shaken officers return to work praying that they will never again be forced to use their weapon in the line of duty.
How many times has this storyline played out? I can't give you a number, but it would have been +1 on New Year's Eve but for the intervention of bystanders with cameras. The truth is that many instances of people dying in police custody have more in common with this incident than we will ever know. Without a (living) witness to contradict the Official Version of Events, deaths in custody almost inevitably get chalked up to justifiable force against an Incredible Hulk of a suspect. It is a particularly pathetic commentary on the state of the post-War on Drugs, militarized police in the United States that guerilla video footage is our last best hope for enforcing some version of sanity in law enforcement.