The horrifying video footage of Sam Dubose being shot and killed by now-former University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing is the latest example of an innocent, unarmed black man meeting his demise from the bullet of a cop’s gun. The recurrence of these killings has become painfully routine.
What was once jarring and shocking to common sensibilities has become so shamefully commonplace that at this juncture, many within our community have become simply numb to it all, while greater portions of white America are having a more difficult time turning a blind eye to race and its impact on criminal and social justice. Tensing’s arrest is a silver lining, which is likely due to body-cam footage that told the true story of what happened.
Dubose’s death is the latest in a string of inexcusable killings that raise legitimate questions about modern-day American policing.
What happened to due process? We have entered a strange era where many in law enforcement have determined themselves judge, jury and executioner, all in one fell swoop. Recent court rulings have given police more authority than ever before.
Even as police enjoy what appears to be far fewer restrictions, one thing that gets lost too easily amid the cable-news cycle and discussions across social media is that, in all these recent incidents, in every case, innocent people are being killed. Many apologists and respectability experts from within our own community miss that and are quick to allow the hint of an accusation to become synonymous with guilt.
Make no mistake about this: Police are killing innocent black people. Regardless of the “thug” label that will inevitably be applied, or whatever prior misdeed or mug shot that can be dug up to represent the latest victim and begin to spin the narrative, these people have all been innocent victims:
Eric Garner, innocent.
Tanisha Anderson, innocent.
Ezell Ford, innocent.
Walter Scott, innocent.
Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell, innocent.
Freddie Gray, innocent.
Tamir Rice, innocent.
Sam Dubose, innocent.
Innocent. Every. Single. One.
Each of them will forever remain innocent because our criminal-justice system dictates that each of us is innocent until proved guilty in a court of law. Sounds simple, but it’s not the reality of where we are in 2015.
These innocent victims did not get a chance to have their guilt proved beyond a reasonable doubt, which is actually what the law requires before you revoke someone’s freedom, much less his or her life. Ironically, the same system that affords us the due process that each of the above individuals was denied is based on another promise of “equal justice under law.” Sadly, that remains far more an ideal than a reality for black people in America.
Will body cameras be enough to hack down the big, blue wall of silence? Perhaps the biggest obstacle to progress in the discussion about policing communities of color is the barrier created by the blue wall of silence. This code of quiet is as entrenched in police culture as anything else and does nothing more than create deep-seated mistrust among the people cops seem to have the harshest interactions with.
In the case of Dubose, there were myriad, incredible falsehoods throughout the police report that were corroborated by other officers, only to be refuted later by the video. All of this was intended to shield Tensing from liability. Although he has since been charged with murder, one cannot help wondering how many cases there are that had no video available, in which police killed innocent people and then hid behind the protection of that same wall of silence.
There are folks who still believe that Elvis is alive but who refuse to accept the notion that racist cops exist and do bad things. No matter how much footage exists to the contrary, there will be those who continue to side with cops.
So, in pondering whether body cams are a worthwhile investment for America’s police, consider the following: A police officer shot and killed an innocent unarmed man in broad daylight, and both the cop and other officers lied to cover it up. Consider further that the officers were all prepared to stick to their lies but for the seemingly irrefutable evidence of a body cam, which directly contradicted their statements.
When the same group of innocent people are continually victimized at alarmingly disproportionate rates by those sworn to protect and serve us all, it becomes almost cliché to state the obvious: Our current system is broken and in need of a serious reboot. Police reform in America must be drastic and sweeping in order to actualize the promise of an equal and fair justice system that protects everyone under the law. But that requires an honest and real discussion of where things are in the first place.
Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a civil rights trial attorney, legal analyst and former Brooklyn, N.Y., prosecutor. He is also a professor of criminal justice at Berkeley College in New York. Follow him on Twitter.