Vice: How can we stop cops from beating and killing?

The multitude of black men killed by police led Maryam Monalisa Gharavi to call these last months “the Summer of Death” in her New Inquiry essay “The Killing Class.” In New York, police strangled grandfather Eric Garner. In Ohio, police gunned down John Crawford III in a Walmart while he was checking out an air rifle sold at the store. In Louisiana, Victor White III died of a mysterious gunshot wound while handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser. In Utah, cops shot anime fan Darrien Hunt in the back, blaming the incident on toy sword he was wearing with his cosplay outfit. Ferguson, Missouri, continues to protest officer Darren Wilson’s execution of Mike Brown.

Every week, it seems, brings a story about police choking, beating, or falsely arresting civilians. In one instance captured on video, New York fruit vendor Jonathan Daza was kicked in the back while handcuffed. In a rare move, the NYPD suspended Vincent Ciardiello, an officer involved in the attack. But, like the cops who beat Shawn Carrié, he wasn’t charged with assault.

At New York Fashion Week, Cosmopolitan’s Shiona Turini made a splash by wearing a T-shirt that listed the names of black men killed by the police. Their killers’ names are less publicized. In a country where daily life is increasingly criminalized—especially in poorer communities—police officers are protected from the consequences of their actions. Instead of being jailed, their punishment might be getting assigned to desk duty.

“It is virtually unheard of for police officers to be arrested and charged for assaults committed against ordinary civilians. It just never happens.” Scott Levy, a lawyer who is director of the Fundamental Fairness Project at the Bronx Defenders, told me.

“The mechanisms that exist outside the criminal justice system to ensure accountability—the civilian complaint review board (CCRB), the police internal affairs bureau, and civil litigation—are opaque, byzantine, and largely ineffective,” Levy said. “Victims of police brutality are systematically cut out of the process, and the countless obstacles they face silently communicate a subtle but clear message: Give in and give up.”

While they are one of a citizen’s few recourses, CCRBs cannot actually discipline cops. They just make recommendations as to how a department can and should discipline its officers. Of 5,410 complaints to the New York City CCRB in 2013, a mere 144 officers were actually disciplined—and “discipline” can mean nothing more than time off with pay in some cases.

District attorneys, who have the power to charge police who brutalize civilians with crimes, rarely do.

“Prosecutors largely ignore allegations of excessive use of force by police officers,” Levy said. “Unless there is incontrovertible evidence of a police assault—and sometimes even if there is incontrovertible evidence—prosecutors will almost always give an officer the benefit of the doubt and decline to prosecute, a benefit never extended to the thousands of regular people dragged into criminal justice system every day.”

This is hardly surprising, as prosecutors generally view themselves as cops’ partners. (Not to mention that police union endorsements are often vital for DAs seeking reelection.)

Given the scant chance of prosecution, the investigations departments promise after high-profile killings are generally merely mechanisms for drawing out the process until public rage fades away. Trauma, both collective and private, remains.

By Molly Crabapple

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