The silly season begins in earnest with too many deaths and too many guns

Time to fire up the blog again after a long break.  I’ve found the world just too depressing to write about with violence and war all over the world including police shooting civilians, civilians shooting police, and too many people just shooting each other,   Yes, the major incidents we hear about are racial, but there are just too many that are not.

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This Tom the Dancing Bug cartoon illustrates only too well what kind of society we seem to be rapidly moving toward.  The violence is numbing.  And our Congress seems unable to act.  We can only hope that there is not another arms race with law enforcement adding more tanks and military style equipment, but more emphasis on community policing.  Granted that Brattleboro is a small town, but our police chief started something he calls “Coffee with a Cop” several years ago.  Anyone can go to a local restaurant and talk to an officer.  Larger places can do something similar in precincts and districts.  More talk can lead to more trust.  OK.  Maybe not always, but there will never be trust if everyone is just shooting at each other.

This is the morning of the start of the Republican Convention.  The lead New York Times story begins

The attack on police officers in Baton Rouge, La., cast a grim mood over the opening of the Republican National Convention here, as Donald J. Trump responded to the killings with a stark warning that the country was falling apart.

A string of shootings targeting police officers, as well as the recent killings of two black men by police officers in Minnesota and Louisiana, had already pushed gun violence and social unrest to the center of the presidential campaign. Mr. Trump has campaigned on the theme of “law and order” since the assassination this month of five police officers in Dallas, and he is likely to amplify that message in the coming days.
“Law and Order” unfortunately doesn’t remind me of the great television series, but of Richard Nixon and the 1960s and 1970s.  They were scary times to be a protester for civil rights or against the war in Vietnam.  Unfortunately, Trump’s message is going to resonate among those who feel threatened by the changes taking place.  Changes like more gay rights, the possibility of a woman becoming president (First a black man and now a woman!), and most of all the slow change from a predominately white country to one that is more diverse.
This election is going to be a scary one beginning with the Republican Convention in Cleveland beginning tonight.  The New York Times story goes on

Cleveland has assigned about 500 police officers specifically to handle the convention, and it has brought in thousands more officers to help, from departments as distant as California and Texas.

But some local officials have expressed concern about the possibility of violence owing to Ohio’s open-carry gun laws. Though demonstrators and others in the convention district have been barred from possessing a range of items, including gas masks, there was no prohibition on the brandishing of firearms.

On Sunday, the president of Cleveland’s police union called for additional measures to protect the security of the event, and urged Mr. Kasich to suspend open-carry gun rights. The governor’s office said Mr. Kasich did not have “the power to arbitrarily suspend federal and state constitutional rights or state laws.”

Plus

And the convention was likely to begin with a trumpeting of support for police officers. Convention organizers said on Sunday that the theme of the first day, Monday, would be “Make America Safe Again.”

Jeff Larson, the convention’s chief executive, said in a news conference that a leading speaker would be Rudolph W. Giuliani, whom he described as “the law-and-order mayor of New York.”
Mr. Giuliani has been a forceful critic of the Black Lives Matter movementand has been outspoken in his defense of law enforcement practices over the last few weeks.
I worry that Democratic calls for unity are not good enough in face of Trump and Giuliani bombast.  NPR laid out the contrast nicely.
Following the shooting death of three law enforcement officers Sunday in Baton Rouge, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump blasted President Obama on Twitter and Facebook, saying he has “no clue” how to deal with a country that is a “divided crime scene.”
while Hillary Clinton issued a statement

Meanwhile, presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton called the shooting “devastating” and “an assault on all of us.”

“There is no justification for violence, for hate, for attacks on men and women who put their lives on the line every day in service of our families and communities,” she said.

Clinton also called for unity:

“We must not turn our backs on each other. We must not be indifferent to each other. We must all stand together to reject violence and strengthen our communities. Our thoughts and prayers are with the friends and families of the police officers who were killed and injured today.”

 

She will be speaking at the NAACP convention today and it will be interesting to hear what she has to say.

For me, the appropriate response is to begin with a ban on sales of large magazines and then move on to banning assault style weapons.  Both the Dallas and Baton Rouge shooters were trained in the military and the idea that they can easily get and use similar weapons after they are discharged is frightening.  We actually need more talk, not more guns.  Let us hope there is no violence in Cleveland.

 

 

 

Policing is a tricky business

Most of us want to be safe.  Maybe that should be all of us.  But how to feel safe and to be safe are questions with many answers.  If we were to listen to the NRA and other gun rights supporters we can best get to safe with each of us carrying a loaded weapon all the time.  Most of us, however, depend on the police.

We recruit young men and women, give them some training, arm them, and send them out to face dangerous situations.  I can’t imagine doing a traffic stop at night, alone.  I’ve heard stories from my State Trooper stepson that are really frightening.  And we also expect them to act within the boundaries society has established:  no excessive force and no stops without cause.  I think that most black men know that “cause” is a slippery thing.  Driving while black is a common reason to be stopped.  I remember my mother telling me about an African American minister who always drove at least once to any place he had to go in a white neighborhood during daylight.  He did this so when he went to a meeting at night, he would know where he was going and wouldn’t be wandering around lost.  He feared being stopped.  Then there is the story of my husband who was stopped while driving four black churchwomen back from a class.  The excuse?  His rear license plate was crooked.  The real reason?  I think they suspected he was a white pimp driving his “girls” someplace.  I guess the trooper realized after he stopped them and looked at the women that they were all middle aged or older and not at all what he had thought.  Was this profiling?  You bet.

So cause can sometimes be difficult to determine.  If see someone driving very fast and weaving in and out of traffic, you have cause for a stop.  If someone is speeding on a two lane road in the rain, you have cause for a stop.  And if you get a report of shots fired in a neighborhood known for gang activity, most of us would think that is cause for a stop.  That seems to be what happened last Friday night in Boston.  According to the story in the Boston Globe

Friday’s incident began at 6:40 p.m. when gang unit officers investigating a report of shots fired stopped a vehicle on Humboldt Avenue near Crawford Street to interview its three male occupants, authorities said Friday night.

The suspect stepped out and began to flee while firing his gun, said David Procopio, a spokesman for the State Police, which works alongside Boston police to address gang violence.

The suspect wounded Moynihan [a police officer] under the right eye, Evans said.

A law enforcement official also said the suspect, who was not identified, had several previous gun-related charges.

Evans [Boston Police Commissioner William] said that the stop was initially routine and that the suspect had fired at police “before they had time to react,” but the officers quickly returned fire, killing the suspect.

Gunfire also struck “a middle-aged woman” who suffered a flesh wound, possibly in her right arm, Evans said.

“I think she got caught up in the crossfire,” he said.

Officer John Moynihan is a veteran Boston policeman who is expected to survive.

So what exactly are we to make of this incident?  Was this a stop with cause?  The report was of shots fired.  Kevin Cullen wrote about the incident and the immediate aftermath for the Globe.

Angelo West wasn’t going back to prison.

That’s what this was about. Pure and simple.

When members of the Boston police gang unit stopped the car he was driving on Humboldt Avenue on Friday evening, he knew that the .357 Magnum he was carrying was a ticket back to Cedar Junction in Walpole, and he wasn’t going out like that.

So he came out of the car, without a word, put his gun to the face of John Moynihan, and pulled the trigger. Then he ran off, turning back to fire at Moynihan’s colleagues.

Did he really think he would get away?

There was an extraordinary scene as police officers combed the area for spent shell casings and other evidence as Moynihan underwent surgery at Boston Medical Center. Some people got in their faces, calling them pigs, screaming about another black man shot to death by police.

I wonder.  Did any of them know the victim?  Did they understand that he shot first and that he was a three time loser facing life?

The Boston Police and the Suffolk County District Attorney then made an extraordinary decision.  Dante Ramos explains

The Rev. Jeffrey Brown finds the surveillance video persuasive, so much so that he gets up from where we’re sitting and pantomimes what happens in it: Boston Police Officer John T. Moynihan approaches a stopped vehicle last Friday, stands by the driver’s door, and taps on the edge of the roof to tell him to come out. As the driver, Angelo West, emerges, Moynihan shifts on his feet — and suddenly rears back as West shoots him in the face. Then, in Brown’s rendition, West leans over the fallen officer, as if to shoot him again. Another officer interrupts by firing at West, who flees while discharging his weapon.

The confrontation on Humboldt Street in Roxbury ended with West dead and Moynihan badly injured. People who’ve seen the video, taken by cameras mounted at a nearby business, say it makes West’s culpability plain.

The footage from Roxbury bears a time stamp of 6:46 p.m. Friday, and interactions between police and spectators on the scene soon became edgy. Supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has protested the deaths of African-American men under dubious circumstances in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere, raised the possibility that West’s death was part of that pattern.

In past cases involving so-called officer-involved deaths in Boston, video evidence came out only at the end of a long investigation. Authorities waited a year after the 2013 shooting of Darryl Dookhran by Boston police to release footage that supported officers’ account of the event. Yet by around noon Saturday, police were showing the video from Humboldt Avenue to a group that included Brown, the Rev. Miniard Culpepper, state Representative Russell Holmes, civil rights attorney Rahsaan Hall, and others.

Releasing the video sets a precedent that may be difficult to live up to in the future.  In other cases, there may be witnesses visible that need protection or the video may be more ambiguous and need to have a jury interpret it.  But in this case it was the right thing to do and a good decision by Commissioner Evans and DA Conley.  People may still question whether the stop itself was justified, but clearly the shooting of Angelo West was the only thing that police could have done.

Yes, black lives matter – all lives matter.  But we need to ask if they all matter equally.  Don’t people like Angelo West terrorize the very community in which many of the protesters live?  Don’t get me wrong.  I would rather see West in prison for life than dead, but in the end Angelo West is dead.  John Moynihan will survive.  I think justice was served.

 

 

Grand juries, Ferguson, lots of questions and incredible sadness

What do I feel this morning after the grand jury failed to indict Officer Wilson on any charge?  Just incredible sadness and weariness.

I served on a grand jury in Boston.  It was supposed to be a six month gig, but turned out to be over a year because we were following evidence in a case.  We heard maybe 75 or 80 different cases and I can only recall two in which we didn’t indict.  One was a drug deal complete with very bad video and audio.  We decided we just couldn’t see or hear well enough to know what was going on.  There was another case, don’t remember exactly what it involved, where there was also not enough evidence.  If I remember correctly, the prosecutors can find more evidence and present again to a different grand jury.  In both cases where we declined to indict, they came to talk to us about why we didn’t do so.  In my year and a half, we heard many cases of unemployment insurance fraud, one child porn case, several Big Dig contractor fraud cases, and the biggie, a public corruption case.  We were constantly reminded that we were not a jury deciding guilt or innocence, but were just to decide if there was enough that a jury should hear the case.  We were often given the option, as was the Ferguson grand jury, of indicting on one of several charges.  We heard the prosecutor’s case only as the process was designed to determine if the prosecutor had enough evidence to go to trial.  It is an interesting process.

We have no idea what went on inside that grand jury room.  We don’t know if there were jurors who voted to indict and on which charges.  (Grand juries usually need a minimum, but not unanimous, vote.)  This was a special grand jury which heard no other cases.  We do know that in this instance, the grand jury did hear from Darren Wilson the defendant.  According to the New York Times summary of the case

The prosecutor usually chooses the evidence that a grand jury will hear, but in this case, the grand jury was given more latitude in calling witnesses and issuing subpoenas, according to Susan McGraugh, a law professor at the St. Louis University who has followed the case extensively. Grand jurors viewed photographs, forensic evidence and medical reports. Witnesses who testified include people who saw the events and police officers who worked on the investigation. While it is unusual in grand jury proceedings for the defendant to appear, Officer Wilson also gave testimony.

I watched Prosecutor McCulloch give his lengthy and sometimes repetitious statement on why the grand jury decided not to indict and I was left with several nagging questions.  There had been an altercation at Officer Wilson’s car and Officer Wilson was the only one who fired a weapon.  Michael Brown was clearly not armed.  Why was he shot, from the front, twelve times?   Why the press conference at night?  John Cassidy, writing in the New Yorker this morning, has many of the same questions.

A protester stands with his hands on his head as a cloud of tear gas approaches after a grand jury returned no indictment in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri

A preliminary question to ask is why the St. Louis authorities scheduled such an incendiary announcement for after dark, even though the news that the grand jury had reached a decision had become public hours earlier. Surely, it would have been wiser for Robert P. McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecutor, to have met with reporters earlier in the day.

A more important question, also unanswered in anything but the most general terms, is this: Why did the grand jury decide not to indict the police officer, Darren Wilson? McCulloch’s press conference, when it eventually took place, was notably lacking in detail about the shots that killed Brown.

But we didn’t learn precisely how far away Brown was when Wilson shot him fatally, or what persuaded the police officer that his life was in danger, which is one legal justification in Missouri for shooting someone who is unarmed. According to some accounts, Brown had his arms raised when he was shot for the final time. Other accounts say that he was charging at Wilson. McCulloch, beyond saying that some eyewitnesses provided contradictory statements, didn’t say what evidence the grand jury had relied on in reaching its decision. He did say, though, that the grand jury had met for twenty-five days and heard from more than sixty witnesses.

I’m sure that there will be extensive analysis from legal scholars in the coming days and I look forward to reading them.  I hope someone answers one of my questions which is:  Did hearing from Darren Wilson make the grand jury feel this was a trial where they were to determine guilt or innocence?

Meanwhile, if the grand jury decision makes me sad, the reaction of the fools on the streets makes me even sadder.  I’ve seen this too many times before – when Dr. King was killed, after Rodney King, right after Michael Brown’s death, etc. etc.   John Cassidy writes

Perhaps the grand-jury transcripts, some of which were released late on Monday, will help clear up what actually happened. More likely, the exact sequence of events will remain in dispute, and so will the grand jury’s decision. Americans who believe that the legal system generally works well, and fairly, will be inclined to believe that the members of the grand jury reached the right decision. Those who believe the criminal-justice system is stacked against minorities, particularly against young African-American men, will be inclined to believe that this was another whitewash.

I am among those who can’t understand the grand jury’s decision, but burning police cars and Walgreen’s will not change the racism in the criminal justice system.  There is more than enough blame to go around.  The announcement made after dark and the declaration of martial law and calling out the National Guard before the decision created a confrontational atmosphere and, in the end, didn’t prevent anything.  Prosecutor McCulloch’s long non-explanation explanation.  The rioters who through their actions fulfilled every stereotype.  There are no good guys here.

It just leaves me sad and frustrated.

Photograph:  ADREES LATIF/REUTERS