The Cop on the Beat is Not Ice-T, the Prosecutor Is Not Sam Waterston, and Mariska Hargitay and S. Epatha Merkerson Are Not in Charge, by Carol P. Christ


carol at green party 2014 croppedI have watched every episode of Law and Order and Law and Order SVU, and most of them more than once. Though there is police violence on these programs, it is usually investigated, and viewers are given the sense that it is not OK. Not living in black America or even in the United States, I guess I was under the illusion that police forces are no longer primarily white and male, that police reforms advocated decades ago have had some effect, and that cops cannot get away with murder.

This despite the fact that I knew that inmates in US prisons are far more likely to be black than their numbers in the population warrant, and that I knew that stop and frisk and arresting black men for petty crimes are ordinary police policies.

For readers who don’t watch MSNBC as avidly as I do, stop and frisk, now banned in New York City, is the policy of searching (primarily) young black men hanging around on street corners to see if they have illegal drugs or weapons on their persons. This policy can lead to the incarceration of young black men for having one or two marijuana cigarettes intended for personal use in their pockets. Stop and frisk is not a policy on college campuses, where police are just as likely to find young white men and women in possession of illegal drugs. Why? Because college authorities and parents of white college students simply would not allow it.

The policy of arresting and incarcerating young black men for petty crimes (like selling contraband cigarettes or stealing a couple of cigars) sometimes called “the broken windows theory” was created with the “intention” of “putting them away” before they do something worse. In fact, this policy pads arrest statistics, ruins young lives, and encourages the police on the beat to believe that crime is a black problem.

Knowing all of this, I still did not expect to see 4 or 5 white male cops jump on Eric Garner, a large but clearly not violent black man whose alleged crime was selling untaxed cigarettes. Nor did I expect to hear that a police officer was unable to shoot a fleeing Michael Brown in the leg rather than the head, if it was necessary to shoot at all. Or to see small 12 year-old Tamir Rice, who was not fleeing the scene of any crime, shot dead in a matter of seconds as he was approaching the police car, most probably to ask “what’s going on?”

I may not have been surprised by the grand jury verdict in Ferguson, though I was certainly outraged by it. But truthfully, I did not expect a similar verdict in New York City, especially when there was a video that showed police officers unnecessarily throwing a man to the ground and at least one of them engaging in a banned chokehold and not releasing his grip when the man cried out “I can’t breathe,”after he was clearly under the control of the police.

Not thinking too much about it, I pictured prosecutors in New York as intelligent somewhat left-leaning individuals like Sam Waterston. Thus I was surprised to learn on All In with Chris Hayes that prosecutors cannot convict police officers one day and then expect police cooperation on other cases the next. This is why Chris’s guest Norman Siegel, former Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said that public prosecutors almost never indict the police and why he stated that prosecution of police crime should be in the hands of special prosecutors as a matter of course.

There is much that needs to be done. Acknowledging the problem as Mayor Bill de Blasio did (but the mayor of Ferguson has not) is an important first step. Police retraining programs are another.* However, I wonder how much effect the 3 day program proposed by de Blasio will have while the head of the Patrolmen’s [sic] Benevolent Association is accusing de Blasio of “throwing the police under the bus.” Clearly, police forces need to be fully integrated by race and sex, and I for one wonder why this has not occurred already.** Another important step is to take the prosecution of police crimes out of the hands of prosecutors who work with the police on a daily basis, so that police officers will know that they are not above the law.

* A website advocating diversity in the police states, “Law enforcement requires a unique blend of traits and characteristics. Some of these include: empathy, effective communication, compassion, intelligence, and the ability to relate to people on a personal level.”

Carol leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (on facebookand twitter) spring and fall–early bird discount available now on the 2015 tours.  Carol can be heard in interviews on Voices of the Sacred Feminine, Goddess Alive Radio, and Voices of Women.  Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions and the forthcoming Turning to the World: Goddess and God in Our Time.

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Categories: Abuse of Power, Activism, Ethics, Feminism and Religion, General, Racism

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

7 replies

  1. Thank you as always for clarity and eloquence. Many people need to read this post. I will do my part!

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  2. Police crime definitely needs special prosecutors. But I don’t understand the jury problem, why twice now the acquittal? It’s not just a little roughing up, it’s life and death. Regards the NYC solution, training police with tactics to deescalate situations, instead of provoking them, definitely seems the way to go, at least as a start.

    P.S. NYC Mayor DeBlasio (who is 6′ 5″ tall), his black wife (Chirlane McCray, a former radical Lesbian poet) and their biracial kids, are all them angels!! I like to imagine a family like that in the White House, Hooray!! There’s a fabulous caricature and article, titled “Significant Other,” detailing McCray’s background online at the Newyorker.com/magazine (August 5, 2013) and definitely worth a look.

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    • The grand jury problem is that it is one-sided. If the prosecutor does not want an acquittal she or he does not present the case clearly so as not to produce an indictment. No one speaks for “the other side.” In the two recent cases, the side that was presented in detail was the side of the police officers in question.

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  3. Thanks for writing this. I always admire the clarity of your posts. “Reality” is often disappointing. I’m sure that’s also true in Greece.

    I quit watching Law and Order ten years ago when Jerry Orbach died. I quit watching MSNBC a year ago because they were all getting too loud and most of the hosts never let their guests get a word in edgewise. (But I still like Rachel.)

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  4. I am glad you brought up television, but I think there is more to it. I love the police shows and having spent the last week bedridden with a severe sinus infection, I got addicted to Blue Bloods on a channel that likes to have marathon viewings of current and old shows. In this show (and others), I feel like the police actually get away with a lot in terms of knocking people around, and their guilt or innocence is irrelevant. They do what it takes to get the information so they can get to the bottom of the story. It makes me think of Cops and how we loved watching real cops catch real bad guys (of course we assume they are bad guys if the cops were after them). We love watching the cops rough up the “thugs” and want everyone to be put away for life, and make no distinction between whether they stole a piece of gum or murdered 20 people. We have lumped all criminals (and suspects) together and no longer believe in redemption and therefore have helped to create a system that offers no redemption.

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  5. Thanks for this post, Carol. I don’t watch television, so for me the most important part of this post was the first paragraph, where you say you’ve watched every episode of Law and Order and Law and Order SVU, and” …you were under the illusion that police forces are no longer primarily white and male, that police reforms advocated decades ago have had some effect, and that cops cannot get away with murder.” I believe from what I’ve read about TV viewing that your statement reflects the assumptions of most white TV viewers. That’s why it’s so good that the series of terrible cop killings recently has been forcing people’s perceptions of reality to change (which until now have been based on TV!!!!). I’m hopeful that change will occur.

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