The Cops We Deserve

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I find it rather difficult to be enraged about Johannes Mehserle getting only two years for the murder killing of Oscar Grant.  To my mind, the strongest arguments for incarceration revolve around protecting a community from a menace. The next strongest argument is punitive--that a price must be paid for the taking of a life, less potential killers come to believe that their acts carry no consequence. I don't really believe that Mehserle is a menace to his community. I'm also mixed on the real point of punitive justice perpetrated against people who are not actually criminals. My sense is that Mehserle, in killing Oscar Grant, made an awful and sickening mistake. But I'm not sure what good comes out of sending him to jail for five or ten years.


Certainly one argument, and one I've thought about quite a bit recently, is that when cops kill the people who pay their salaries, when that killing focuses on a particular class of those salary-payers, when killer cops are effectively inoculated against penalty, the particular social contract between community and constable is eroded. The taped killing of Oscar Grant is just the latest assault against the American law enforcement, as a brand. 

Broad swaths of this country believe that cops are not legitimate representatives of the polity, but an independent force, a power, outfitted with some of the institutional legitimacy which criminals lack. The notion that a killer police officer will serve less time for his actions, than a pot dealer, buttresses that belief.  Surely it is tempting to quietly write off brand erosion among law enforcement, to simply assign it to people who live in high-crime areas. African-Americans do not have that option and, increasingly, white people are aware that they don't either.

Sending Mehserle to jail for many years would do very little to halt this brand erosion, because, right now, brand erosion is wide-spread and regular. With some help from Radley Balko's indispensable blog, I offer the following. 

  • A Philadelphia man arrested--twice--at a bus stop  for loitering, has his gun, which he's licensed to carry, confiscated. The man is detained for seven hours, but never charged with a crime."If he's that defiant, should this guy have a gun?" said Sgt. Ray Evers, a police spokesman. "The most uncommon human trait is common sense. He's not using good, adult judgment."

  • Greenville vice cops don SWAT gear in order to raid a poker game. After the cops begin bashing at the door with a battering ram, the 72-year old home-owner, thinking he's being robbed, fires out into the door, hitting a deputy. The home-owner, who was also shot and was hospitalized in the ensuing gun-fight, is facing charges including, attempted murder and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. "Why didn't you tell me it was the cops?" the home-owner asked, as he fell wounded.

  • A Wyoming woman finds a wallet, and makes attempts to contact the owner. She calls the police, but declines to hand it over to them unless the officer contacts the wallet's owner in her presence. The woman is arrested and charged. "We're only going to take so much," testified one of the arresting officers. The judge declares a mistrail.

  • A 57-year old school-teachers calls the cops to her house to report a prowler. The cops responds by repeatedly tasing her.  "I did what I had to do to take control of the situation," said the officer. He promptly quit his job--and found another as a cop in a nearby town.

  • Here in New York, a cop parks his cruiser in the bike lane. He then tickets a bicyclist for not riding in the bike lane which he is occupying.

  • In Brooklyn, an undercover officer sits on the stoop of man's mother. When the man asks the officer to move, the officer ignores him. The man--thinking the officer is a vagrant or drug-dealer--tries to forcibly move the officer. A scuffle ensues. The man is shot and killed. The officer never heard the man ask him to move because he was wearing earphones to monitor a drug buy-bust.

And so on.

My point here is that there is something at work in this country's law enforcement priorities that punishing  individual negligent, or rogue officers won't really fix. I was not so much struck by Johannes Mehserle's light sentence as I was the judge's justification:

Testimony showed that Mehserle had announced he was going to use the Taser, the judge said. He also quoted the testimony of one of Grant's friends, who said that after Mehserle fired a single shot into Grant's back, he said, "Oh s-, oh s-, I shot him." 

Fair enough, but why was the officer even tasing a man who was already prone on the ground? Was that level of force really even necessary? Why are we so quick to say tasing was even the smart thing to do in that situation?

What's scary about all of these stories, is that police departments, around the country, are under pressure from officials who actual people have elected to generate arrests. What that means is more contact, no matter how frivolous, between citizens and their alleged guardians, with the guardians knowing that they are free from real repercussions. 

I think another argument for sentencing Mehserle to serious time is that a message needs to be sent to other cops that the society takes their crimes seriously. But that gets its backwards. It is a society that passes laws which send SWAT teams into gambling houses that is need of a message. These are the cops that we deserve. In that sense, I am not so disturbed that Oscar Grant's killer will do little, if any, jail time. I am disturbed that this will happen again. I am disturbed that we are so fragile a people, that we know this, and that all we can do is look away.
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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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