One of the most remarkable things about the Trayvon Martin killing is that the man who shot him, George Zimmerman, is not a police officer. If Zimmerman had been a cop instead of a self-appointed neighborhood watch volunteer, most Americans would likely have never heard of Trayvon.
“It happens so much with police officers,” says Michael Coard, a Philadelphia lawyer and civil rights activist. Police violence, he says, is “boiling under the surface. But in this case, we're outraged.”
Just last month, 18-year-old Ramarley Graham, unarmed and in possession of a small quantity of marijuana, was chased into his house by New York City Police Department officers and shot dead in his own bathroom. More than 200 people marched in protest in the Bronx two weeks ago, but the Graham story has long since departed national headlines and no criminal charges have been filed against the officer. "Had Zimmerman been a cop, the political, social and emotional response might have been about as urgent as the response to the shooting of unarmed Ramarley Graham in his own home," says Columbia Law Professor Jeffrey Fagan. "New Yorkers seemed more outraged by the Martin killing than by the killing of Graham."
Martin's killing was ghastly, but police harassment and excessive force against black Americans is far more common than anything carried out by civilian vigilantes. On March 24, Pasadena police shot unarmed and black 19-year old Kendrec McDade to death. A man had called 911 and said that his backpack was stolen at gunpoint - though he later confessed to lying about the gun.
Indeed, what seems so offensive about Martin's killing is that Zimmerman appears to have decided to anoint himself with police powers and then abused it, with after-the-fact police sanction.
To many, the Martin killing - like the 2010 beating of a homeless man by a Sanford, Florida, police lieutenant’s son who was also not initially arrested - feels like some nightmarish resurrection of the alliance between the Klan and law enforcement that once terrorized blacks throughout the South. Thus the comparisons to the 1955 Mississippi murder of Emmett Till. But the parallels most often drawn in recent weeks have been to police harassment and violence.
It takes a remarkable degree of excess - like the 41 shots the NYPD fired at the wallet-wielding Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo in 1999 (all officers were acquitted), or Rodney King's brutal and videotaped beating in 1991 - to spark widespread public anger. Even then, such spectacularly excessive force does not guarantee a widespread public response - or, ultimately, justice. Last month, it was announced that four NYPD officers who took part in the November 2006 shooting of Sean Bell would be fired or forced to resign. Unarmed, the 23-year old black man died in a hail of 50 bullets the night before his wedding. In 2008, the officers were acquitted of criminal charges.
Civil rights activists have for decades demanded strong oversight of police misconduct. Overwhelmingly, they have failed.
“Those review boards that exist and have existed for many years around the country...what have they ever done?” asks Samuel Walker, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska and an expert on police accountability. “Find me a case where they have gotten some officers fired or even significant discipline.”
In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter called the Martin killing “an assassination” and District Attorney Seth Williams donned a hoodie in solidarity. But there is no such justice for police abusers in Philly. According to a recent Daily News report, the city's Police Advisory Commission “is often described as a toothless, civilian-run police oversight board without the authority to do anything.” The Commission has no power to punish offending police officers and can only make recommendations to the police department. It has done so just 21 times since 1994. In January, the Commission published its first recommendation since 2007. The barely funded agency currently has a backlog of 129 cases dating back to 2008. A proposal to strengthen the commission has so far been stymied by the city's powerful Fraternal Order of Police.
In New York, advocates likewise have little faith in the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB).
“The CCRB has unfortunately proven itself to be highly ineffective at reigning in police abuse,” says Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “While the CCRB receives increasing numbers of complaints every year, many people don't go there because they fail to substantiate all but a small percentage of complaints. And the police department fails to discipline officers in cases that are substantiated.”
In New Orleans, violence against blacks in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was so wanton and systematic that the Justice Department had to intervene and bring the offenders to justice.
Chicago's Independent Police Review Authority can recommend disciplinary actions, and the police chief can choose not to implement only if he is able to refute the complaint. But civil rights activists in the city complain that only a minute number of accusations of excessive force are ever sustained.
There are few effective mechanisms for ensuring police accountability nationwide. In part, this is because juries and prosecutors tend to grant police wide latitude.
“In most places, it's pretty hard to convict a police officer,” says Dennis Kenney, a policing expert at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “There's a natural empathy that most citizens have: I wouldn't want to be out there.”
Matters outside an individual officer's control - from the nation's long-running drug war to deeply entrenched urban poverty and segregation - put police into complicated and dangerous situations. Decreasing police abuse is not only a matter of changing policing protocol, it is a question of large-scale policy change.
One method that has seen some success is a police auditor, a system used to varying extents by the Los Angeles Sheriff, and police departments in Denver, Boise, San Jose, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.
In L.A., a police auditor found that a sheriff's canine unit had weak oversight, and the number of people bitten by sheriff's dogs decreased significantly after a new standard was introduced. In D.C., an auditor found that a city ordinance requiring the registration of bicycles was primarily used as a pretext to harass young black men. The Office of Police Complaints recommended repealing the ordinance, and the D.C. Council did so.
Police are less resistant to auditors because they usually evaluate trends instead of investigating individual cases. But that, notes Walker, “is cold comfort for the family of someone who was shot.”
It's difficult to determine just how prevalent police violence and misconduct is. Some of the most alienating experiences young men of color have are not necessarily violent: take the stop-and-frisk programs in cities like New York and Philadelphia, which Mayors Michael Bloomberg and Nutter steadfastly defend. New York's much criticized program has the public support of just 27 percent of black voters - and 59 percent of whites. Philadelphia's stop-and-frisk program was last year placed under court supervision after advocates contended that the policy enabled racial profiling and did little in the way of achieving the stated goal of stemming gun violence.
The epidemic of gun violence in cities like Philadelphia, Detroit, and New Orleans provides the rationale for aggressive police tactics - and anti-violence campaigners struggle to call attention to “run-of-the-mill” black-on-black killings.
Mary Mitchell, an African-American columnist at the Chicago Sun Times, told NPR last week that a "young black man isn't dead until a white man kills him."
But activists contend that the police state governing many poor neighborhoods does more harm than help. Indeed, some of the most promising violence-reduction strategies, like Chicago's CeaseFire, have explored non-law enforcement routes, such as mediating conflicts before they explode into gunfire. Pilot projects have been launched in Philadelphia and other cities.
“If you think about how policing work works, it's not technology driven: it's the ability to get people to tell you what's going on when it's going on. For that to happen, citizens obviously have to be willing to talk to you.”
The NYCLU recently undertook a survey to gauge opinions of police across the city.
“It's a different story among white people than among black people,” says Lieberman. “Our preliminary review of the data reflects that policing in New York is a tale of two cities.”