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Giving new kinds of prosecutors new tools

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Published in the St. Louis American, August 20, 2020

When St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell recently announced that there would be no indictment of former Ferguson cop Darren Wilson, it ignited a range of emotions from outrage to disappointment. For many, the historic election of Bell as the county’s first African-American prosecutor would mean real justice for Michael Brown, his family and a still grieving community. Those of us who’ve been doing this work for a while know that it is a classic case of using the master’s tools to dismantle his house—to paraphrase a quote from our beloved sister Audre Lorde. That hasn’t worked.

I also was outraged by the Bell announcement but for completely different reasons. In 1983 I was a part of getting the first indictment of a St. Louis cop. Joseph Ferrarrio had recklessly murdered Marilyn Banks, a young, Black mother sitting on her front porch. Ferrario ‘s attorney got a change in venue. Some of us traveled to Kansas City the following spring with fierce determination that we’d bring a victory back home to our community. Instead we witnessed the acquittal of a murderer.

Yes, we got Ferrario fired. Yes, we got the largest settlement in Missouri history (at that time) for Marilyn’s surviving children. But we came up empty handed on criminal charges. Conclusion? We’ve got to work harder.

For more years that I care to remember, groups like the Organization for Black Struggle (OBS) and the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression (CAPCR) fought really hard to make rogue cops accountable for their crimes. I traveled all over the country fighting with other communities to get justice. Continually, we hit brick walls and saw killer cops walk free. Then we started to look at why.

What justice-seeking people have found is a formidable blue wall of policies, laws and court rulings that make it damn near impossible to indict, prosecute or convict police officers. These tools made it super easy for police chiefs, police unions, lobbyists, defense attorneys and prosecutors to make cops untouchable.

Missouri Revised Statues Chapter 563 gives wide discretion to officers to use deadly force if he or she uses reason. The definition of reason has been defined  by SCOTUS rulings like the 1985 Tennessee v. Garner case and the 1989 Graham v. Connor case. The situation must be viewed from the eyes of the cop.

These rulings, over-emphasized by attorneys when defending police, make for reluctant jurors— Black and white. Very few are willing to second -guess the ultimate justification by police: I feared for my life. Holding police accountable has been made more difficult because their lethal actions are deemed legal.

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby brought criminal charges against the six officers involved in the murder of Freddie Gray. When the first three officers were acquitted, Mosby was forced to drop all charges against the other three. This is a repeat in court rooms across the country, leaving families to pursue civil rights violations if they have the resources to obtain an attorney. Even if they get a settlement, it doesn’t affect the personal finances of the cops involved.

There is a new breed of prosecutors who are moving an agenda to hold police accountable. They have been stymied by the impenetrable judicial wall described earlier. They need the help of the communities who voted them in to carry out the reform agenda. We must start eliminating the barriers—the laws, the policies, the culture that protect police at all costs. We have to make killing unarmed, Black people the crime. Let’s give these public servants some new tools to do what we sent them to do.