Framing the CopsComplications Ensue
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Monday, December 08, 2014

... or rather, framing the cops-and-grand-juries issue.

(This is a post about political story-telling. If you only want to read about screenwriting, please skip it.)

It has come to everyone's attention that cops are killing a lot of black men. The Black community has been up in arms about this for years. (And their arms have been up. "Don't shoot, it's just a wallet!") Lately, though, a lot of white folks have noticed.

On most days that end in the letter "y," the right wing is not particularly interested in what black people are upset about. But now it's upset about this, too. Glenn Beck and George W. Bush find the Eric Garner non-indictment unfathomable.

I wonder if this is an opportunity for protestors to reframe the issue. It is statistically true that cops kill black men in disproportionate numbers. But there's another fundamental issue here, one that even white people who don't care about black people can get behind. Cops don't get indicted for killing people. Not even when a cop jumps on a non-violent guy selling loose cigarettes, puts him in a chokehold, and suffocates him, on video.

I don't think this is a racism issue. Yes, Staten Island is pro-cop. But, as FiveThirtyEight points out:
Former New York state Chief Judge Sol Wachtler famously remarked that a prosecutor could persuade a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” The data suggests he was barely exaggerating: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them.
Comparable figures for cops:  80 out of 81 grand juries did not bring an indictment.

Is this racism? Maybe there's racism in there, but I think the phenomenon is way too consistent to be racism.

I think the problem is that prosecutors are on the same team as cops. Cops bring in perps; prosecutors indict them. What prosecutor wants to incur the resentment of a police department he has to work with every day? Much easier to go before the jury, allow the cop to testify, don't cross-examine him or the exculpatory witnesses, cross-examine only the witnesses who testify that he did something wrong, don't say the public deserves to see this go to trial, and just ask the grand jury to vaguely "do the right thing." If the prosecutor doesn't want an indictment, the grand jury is not going to bring one in.

We need special prosecutors for cops, like we used to have for Presidents. The Special Prosecutor law passed after Watergate made clear that the US Attorney General could not be relied on to prosecute his boss, the US President, who could fire him at will. Police forces have Internal Affairs cops, who do nothing but investigate bad cops, because ordinary detectives are not going to investigate their buddies.

I think we need special prosecutors who are called in when a cop needs prosecuting. Prosecutors who do not, on a daily basis, work with that police department. It doesn't need to be a full-time job; they could be called in from another city in the same state.

Instituting a law like this wouldn't stop police racism. But it would allow police at least to be held accountable when they kill people.

Framing the issue this way would bring in the majority. Obviously, Black people are exercised about racism, but white people typically aren't, or only theoretically so. White people tend not to see a lot of racism going on, or downplay its effects. White people are not that upset about cops pulling over people for Driving While Black.

But framed as a police state issue, this could get a lot more traction.

The reason I bring this up in this blog is that how you frame an issue is a story-telling question. What story do you want to tell?

If the story is "cops are killing black men," then it's a Black issue. Some white people will get upset about it. But maybe not enough.

If the story is "cops are killing people and prosecutors won't indict them," then it's a universal issue. Everyone is scared of cops. I'm scared of cops. Not because I'm a lawbreaker, but because they might think I am, and they've got guns and permission to use them. They are the embodiment of the state monopoly on violence.

Also, it's easier to insist that a justice department hire one special prosecutor than that they attempt to hire cops according to racial quotas, even assuming that would reduce police killings of unarmed civilians.

Obviously, it's up to Black civil rights protestors to decide what story they want to tell. But the more their story works on white fears of government oppression, I think, the more traction they'll get. 


Nice post. To your point:

By Blogger David, at 2:23 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

By Blogger David, at 2:26 PM  

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