The Cops We Deserve, Cont.

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I should have linked Julianne Hing's excellent piece in Colorlines on the aftermath of the Mehserle verdict in my earlier post. There's really no substitute for on the ground detail. In terms of the point I was driving at, I offer the following:


The disappointing sentencing comes at the end of a roller coaster ride of a murder trial. This was the first time in California history that a police officer had been charged with homicide for an on-duty killing. When Mehserle was convicted in July, John Burris, the Grant family's attorney, acknowledged that it was unprecedented that a white police officer had been convicted for killing a black man. 

But it hardly takes the sting away from Mehserle's sentence. Grant's uncle Cephus Johnson compared the punishment to the prison sentence NFL player Michael Vick got: "If a man goes to prison for killing a dog and he gets four years, then of course two years is not enough," the Christian Science Monitor reported Johnson said. Criminal prosecutions are a necessary salve for families who want personal accountability for their deepest losses and courts remain the most public venue to demand justice for police officers' violent behavior. 

But for many organizers and academics who work on police brutality issues, they are not the most effective. Prosecutions so often end in acquittal, for one--as the painful verdicts for the cops charged with attacking Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Abner Louima and Rodney King all illustrate. But more than that, organizers say the hard work of bringing about long-term change comes only from engaging in systemic overhauls and with sustained pressure on police departments to do preventative work. 


For that, people must be a steady presence at their local police departments' public accountability meetings or in their local sheriff's office. Some police departments trying to clean up their acts, most notably in New Orleans, are banking on public involvement as a preventive force. It's that quiet, boring work that is as important as the public protests that have repeatedly filled Oakland's downtown streets over Grant's killing. 

Robert Perry, legislative director of the New York Civil Liberties Union who has helped develop civilian complaint review boards in New York, put it to me this way earlier this year: "The tendency is only to respond when the egregious high-profile case hits the papers, instead of the practices that are producing the misconduct," but, "the culture that allows this type of thing to happen is much harder to get at."

A couple of things. Cynic posts a comment in the original post that argues, in part, that we're actually moving forward not backwards on these issues. I don't have the historical knowledge to really assess that, but he makes a convincing case. I think that case, is buttressed by the fact that California, the largest state in the country, home to ten percent of all Americans, had never before charged an officer with homicide for an on-duty killing. As Hing says, that doesn't take the sting away. But it's progress.

But more than that, I want to double down on Hing's point about "systemic overhauls" and ingrained "practices that are producing the misconduct." I'd be very interested in everything that went wrong before Mehserle pulled his gun. Also I think the call for sustained public involvement--as opposed to a crisis-minded response--points the way forward. I don't know how hard it is to make that real, as I'm not an activist. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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