The Good Ferguson
December 4th, 2014

As I’ve mentioned before, the Michael Brown – Darren Wilson case in Ferguson is not particularly helpful to anyone’s cause. The anti-police contingent did no one any favors by resorting to riotous mob behavior. And Wilson seems to be a bad cop who managed a situation poorly and escalated it, rather than defusing it–even if the final act, the killing of Brown, seems to have been within the realm of justifiable use of deadly force. Surveyed from afar, it makes you wish we could have another case around which to base our discussion of race, crime, and police behavior.

Sadly, but helpfully, we do now that a New York grand jury has chosen not to indict the cop who choked Eric Garner to death. See John Podhoretz and Sean Davis, both of whom have smart pieces on the case. Because the Garner case is clear enough that we could expand the discussion from not just race and the police, but to the entire criminal justice system. Here’s Davis on the problem with grand juries:

So an officer used a banned practice that is known to lead to the deaths of people who are subjected to it? That certainly seems to satisfy the second condition of a second-degree manslaughter charge. And again, I have to stress that the entire incident was caught on tape. The evidence is unequivocal. And yet, no indictment.

Why, it’s almost as if the grand jury system is just a convenient means for prosecutors to get the outcome they want wrapped in a veneer of due process. Want to indict a ham sandwich? Consider it indicted. Texas Gov. Rick Perry was indicted for vetoing a spending bill, but a New York prosecutor can’t indict an officer who killed another man in an incident that was completely captured on video? Come on.

John Edwards was right: there are Two Americas. There’s an America where people who kill for no legitimate reason are held to account, and there’s an America where homicide isn’t really a big deal as long as you play for the right team.

Unfortunately Eric Garner was a victim in the second America, where some homicides are apparently less equal than others.

If you’d like additional evidence of my contention that a prosecutor can generally get a grand jury to return whichever outcome the prosecutor wants, check this out:

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Despite his contention of a frame-up, Ramsey Orta’s testimony didn’t sway a grand jury, which indicted him on weapon charges, stemming from an Aug. 2 arrest, it was revealed in court Friday.

Orta, 22, who filmed an NYPD officer’s fatal chokehold of Eric Garner last month, pleaded not guilty at his arraignment in state Supreme Court, St. George.

That’s right. Less than a month after Garner was killed, the same DA’s office tasked with handling his homicide case just happened to get a grand jury indictment against the man who filmed Garner’s homicide.

It would be helpful if the country could let go of Ferguson and focus our attention on Garner.

Update: I should add that this Connor Friedersdorf article on the rate at which police unions get the terminations of bad cops overturned is as troubling as anything else you’ll see: Even the few bad cops who managed to get fired seem to have a better-than-even chance of being reinstated–with back-pay.

It strikes me that if you’re looking to reform the system, you almost have to start with fixing this arbitration process, because if police administrators know that firings are likely to be overturned, they’ll fire fewer problematic cops. And if the cops of marginal quality know that they’re less likely to be fired, they’ll be less careful.

Start by fixing this backstop and then, as you work your way through the system, the corruption gets easier to weed out and it becomes easier to support the good officers, get rid of the bad, and instill a culture where the police themselves are more invested in making those distinctions.

  1. KenS December 4, 2014 at 1:48 pm

    Instead of “letting go of Ferguson” in order to focus on Garner, wouldn’t it make more sense to update about Ferguson in light of the Garner case? At the very least, shouldn’t we now lend more credence to concerns about the grand jury process in Ferguson and more sympathy to the frustrations expressed by the community there? However messy the facts of the Wilson case are, it clearly does not require irrational paranoia or anti-police bias to doubt the justice of what happened in Ferguson.