The NYPD Shootings and the Character of Our Nation
The Rev. Al Sharpton has a longstanding career as a rabble-rouser whose rants have led to fatalities. His actions in the wake of an accidental death at Crown Heights led to the stabbing death of Yankel Rosenbaum, and his incitations against Freddie’s Fashion Mart, which led to the deaths of seven employees in a fire started by a rioter.
In the aftermath of the police shooting in Ferguson, the Grand Jury heard a large volume of evidence, sifted out truthful testimony while comparing it with forensic evidence, and decided not to indict officer Darren Wilson. Sharpton, who had riled up the masses in the weeks leading to the Grand Jury decision, made a tepid effort to stanch the angst.
In a recent police case in New York City, which left a man dead, a Grand Jury also refused to indict. Sharpton again failed to speak forcefully against rioters, and New York mayor Bil de Blasio gave a speech that heaped disgust on the New York Police Department.
Against this backdrop, on Saturday, December 20, 2014, a troubled man in Maryland shot his ex-girlfriend, posted a desire to “put wings on pigs (policemen)”, and lashed out against the recent police cases in Ferguson and New York City. He went to New York and gunned down two policemen before killing himself.
In the wake of these incidents, many Americans have attacked the “militarization” of the police force, with some libertarians tacitly supporting the deaths of the two officers.
This is indeed a time for sober assessment.
First, irrespective of what one thinks of the Brown case in Ferguson or the Garner case in New York City, we must begin with reality: in each case, a Grand Jury returned “no true bill”; i.e., decided NOT to indict.
Like trial (petit) jurors, grand jurors are first selected at random.
Unlike petit jurors, Grand Jurors are not prejudicially screened out. In a criminal trial, prosecutors and defense attorneys will eliminate jurors through the voir doir process: they will exclude jurors whom they believe may be adverse. Some defense attorneys and prosecutors will even enlist consultants who will screen out jurors who may be problematic.
This is not the case with Grand Juries: provided they meet the legal criteria, they get to serve. They are not questioned about their knowledge of particular cases, or what they think of various issues, or even what they do for a living.
Unlike petit jurors–who must remain silent while prosecutors and defense attorneys fight it out with witnesses–Grand Jurors have the capacity to directly question witnesses. They can even compel witnesses to testify. They can ask direct questions of prosecutors.
Unlike petit jurors, Grand Jurors do not decide on issues of guilt or innocence; they merely decide whether the evidence warrants having a trial.
Unlike petit jurors, who must unanimously judge “guilt beyond reasonable doubt” in order to convict, Grand Jurors only have to determine–with 9 votes out of 12–whether there is enough evidence for “probable cause”.
So when a Grand Jury refuses to indict, that is a very big deal: they are effectively saying that there is no case.
Let us not forget that the Grand Jury is a major part of the Constitutional right to Due Process. However you feel about the shooting in Ferguson, or the fracas that led to Garner’s death in New York City, the officers involved have rights. The Fifth Amendment reads the same without respect to skin color or station in life:
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
This means that, unless you are in a military capacity, in which the Uniform Code of Military Justice applies, then you are entitled to a particular course of Due Process. The burden is on government to prove your guilt, not on you to prove your innocence. It also means that you cannot be tried for the same crime twice. You have the right not to testify. (Officers go to great lengths to advise you of those rights when you are arrested.)
In other words, (1) freedom is your default state, (2) government cannot take that away except through Due Process, and (3) it is on them to prove you guilty.
This goes for you and me; this goes for the rich executive and the homeless man; this goes for the gangster and the police officer.
Secondly, words mean things. When Michael Brown’s stepfather, in the wake of the Grand Jury decision, said, “burn this bitch down,” that inflamed and already angry mob. The ensuing damage to Ferguson will reverberate for years. Sharpton, di Blasio, and President Obama tacitly granted legitimacy to rioters where no such legitimacy was warranted.
Rather than call out thugs and marginalize them, certain political leaders only emboldened them. This not only damages minorities; it divides Americans where such division is unproductive and destructive.
Thirdly, don’t blame the police for enforcing bad laws. Libertarians are right to be outraged that New York police officers are cracking down on the sale of unauthorized cigarettes (“loosies”). This, however, is not the fault of the police, but rather the mayor and the city council and the officials who made the law and enacted the policy for enforcement of the law. Police officers are merely instruments of policy.
New York is already a Draconian regime, given their tax structure and hostility toward gun owners. That they crack down on “loosies” is hardly surprising. This, however, is not the fault of the police.
Finally, what kind of nation do we wish to be?
Paul Harvey often said that self-rule is impossible without self-discipline. An integral part of self-discipline is the integrity to call evil for what it is. While no one wants to say that his or her child is bad, we need to be brutally honest: there are men and women of ill repute, who–for all the talk of how “good” they are–are thugs and felons.
When an armed robber fights an officer for his gun and gets shot to death, it isn’t “injustice”; it is the Law of Sowing and Reaping on live display. Fighting another adult over a deadly weapon can make one…dead.
In all the talk about “society”, we need to be honest about the factors contributing to the criminal class in America: illegitimacy, cohabitation, broken homes, promiscuity, and even drug use. We must call out a Church that has softened her preaching of truth.
This is not a poverty issue; it is a character issue. John Adams said it succinctly: “Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people; it is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
That is not to say that there aren’t bad cops out there; police officers are like any other segment of America: most are good, some are excellent, and yes, there are a few bad ones. The bad ones should be rooted out and dismissed and/or prosecuted.
Still, the larger issue is our character as a nation.