When justice is not meted out fairly, terrible things begin to happen. Small-town Ukiah, no less than the nation’s vast metropolises, needs to trust that its law enforcement authorities are willing to act on behalf of all its residents. When that is not the case – when local people come to believe that decisions about who gets prosecuted in their community depend on a person’s professional status or ability to afford a vigorous defense or skin color – a community is at grievous risk.
New York City demonstrates the horrors that can unfold. Late last year, police officers spotted Eric Garner, father of three, selling “loosies” in the borough of Staten Island. For the crime of peddling individual cigarettes for fifty cents apiece, Garner was surrounded by cops, forced to the ground, and held in a chokehold, an illegal maneuver in the city’s Police Department, as he gasped, “I can’t breathe” eleven times. Garner offered neither threat nor resistance as he slowly suffocated. A passer-by caught the entire episode on a cell phone video.
The police behaved reprehensibly, the world saw the video, and the trust between civilians and their protectors began to crack.
Then, a Staten Island grand jury refused to return an indictment against the cop who choked him. Legal experts explained why. “This was, as was the case in Missouri, orchestrated by the prosecutor,” Fordham University law professor told the Gothamist. “And the prosecutor decided that there should be no indictment.” A Columbia University legal scholar agreed, noting that it would have been “politically costly” for the District Attorney to indict a police officer in conservative Staten Island.
Politics took precedence over justice, and the fissure widened.
In response, protestors poured onto the streets with the rallying cry “Black lives matter.” Some of their rhetoric was overheated, but city residents were broadly sympathetic because most felt that the DA and the grand jury had done something very wrong.
Then, on the streets of Brooklyn, the anguishing act of a madman took the lives of two officers – hard-working family men, one Chinese, one Latino. Sergeant Wenjian Liu, the immigrant son whose father ironed shirts at a garment factory, and Rafael Ramos, a religious man who saw the neighborhoods of New York as his ministry, were the best of their profession. Their deaths reminded a stunned city that “blue lives matter” too.
The police responded to the assassinations with fear and anger. Increasingly distrustful of the city that pulsed around them, sentries were posted outside precinct doors and cops were ordered to work only in teams. Arrest rates plummeted in New York, as the cops sent a wordless message that their obligation to the community was contingent – that in the face of too much hostility or too much danger, they were willing to turn their backs on the constituents they serve. The fissure grew wider still.
No one is safe when a chasm exists between the authorities and the people they are sworn to protect. At our best, we are all part of the same community – a place where mutual respect and even-handed justice are applied, where prosecutors weigh only evidence, and not political consequences, before deciding whether to act.
And here, recent events in New York City and the still-unprosecuted homicide of Susan Keegan in Ukiah begin to converge. In both narratives, the trust that should exist between those who abide by the law and those who enforce it has been eroded. In both cases, a District Attorney was more intent on protecting the police, even in the face of their grievous errors, than in seeking justice. In both instances, political calculation became a barrier to effective prosecution.
Still another shared reality was that protestors who spoke out were viewed largely as adversaries by the authorities, not as allies in pursuit of justice. And so the gap between them continued to widen.
Accountability is the core of democracy and the people are right to demand it, in Ukiah as in New York. They are right to ask questions when officials fail to prosecute certain suspects – usually the whiter and better-financed ones – and they are right to keep asking them in the face of stony silence. The people are right to seek independent grand jury investigations when a crime occurs, and to push for explanations when no one gets charged in a homicide.
How do we close the fissure between law enforcement and the community? Better communication and a less defensive posture are good places to start. Community members who ask respectful questions of the law are not its enemies.
The case is closed in Staten Island, the harm that was done to community trust irrevocable. But in Ukiah, something can still happen. A woman was murdered in her own home, according to official law enforcement documents. Find out who did it. Bring that person to justice. And if that’s not possible, say why.
Making an empty claim that the Keegan investigation remains active, while refusing to act on the evidence and closing the door on people who ask for explanations, does nothing but enlarge the rift. And that’s dangerous.