Burdens of Proof

Perhaps it is unfair to hold members of law enforcement to a higher standard? After all, are they not just people who happen to have a badge and gun as provisions of their profession? How is this any different than a writer, who always carries around a pad of paper and a pen? Or a stock trader, who always has his fingers tightly wrapped around a smart phone? Or a person managing a retail store, who always has a headset nestled firmly in their ear?

Some argue that police officers should be held to a higher standard, for they act as enforcers of the laws that keep our society functioning. In theory, yes, but so long as police officers are shielded from their actions by thin blue lines weaved together into a veil of self-preservation, it is completely unreasonable to hold police officers to a higher standard than the rest of us. Further, it is unreasonable to hold police officers to a higher standard than gang members, drug dealers, rapists, and murderers.

When police officers are given “Get Out of Jail Free” cards, they aren’t being held to a higher standard, but instead are being held to a low one that seems to be getting lower. The law applies to everyone, regardless of who they are, but despite that notion being early-acquired general knowledge, it isn’t enforced with any kind of consistency. When incidents take place like those that happened last week in Louisiana and Minnesota — where two men were killed by law enforcement officials who probably lacked any real justification for their actions — police officers involved are always given the benefit of the doubt. When it comes to the boys in blue, due process works as intended — “innocent until proven guilty.” The burden of proof in these cases, the bar that must be reached to prove criminality, is raised significantly because as law enforcement officers, life and death decisions must be made quickly and decisively. But at the same time, for the person on the receiving end, who is more often than not a male person of color, due process works the opposite of what is intended — “guilty until proven innocent,” whether they’re alive or dead.

How frustratingly backwards is it that people of color who find themselves victims of police misconduct and brutality have to engage in a defense that must effectively explain why their aggressors were in the wrong, even if they died in the altercation? In no way should someone have to prove their innocence from beyond the grave.

But this is the dynamic we see on a stunningly regular basis. Police officers who may have crossed the line rarely seem to actually find themselves in the system they impose on others who crossed the line. Police officers are like Ethan Couch in this regard, but instead of their race or wealth granting them an escape from the consequences of their actions, their badge does.

And people wonder why communities of color riot after justice fails them.

Policing is backward in the United States. Suspects are supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty by criminal prosecutors in a court of law. That’s how jurisprudence works. The burden of the criminal justice system is not on the defendant to prove their innocence, but on the state to prove their guilt. But as we have seen time and time again, the presumption of innocence fails to make an appearance in times when it is probably needed most.

There was no presumption of innocence when John Crawford was killed in a Wal-Mart holding an air soft rifle that the store sold in his hand.

There was no presumption of innocence when Tamir Rice was killed in what was effectively a drive-by shooting in a park.

There was no presumption of innocence when George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin over a canned beverage and a bag of Skittles.

There was no presumption of innocence when Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown and left his body in the middle of the road for hours afterward.

There was no presumption of innocence when Baltimore police threw Freddie Gray in the back of the paddy-wagon and broke his neck during a “rough ride.”

In each of these cases, the law enforcement officials (or armed security guard, in Zimmerman’s case) had the benefit of the doubt, while the people who are no longer with us — Crawford, Rice, Martin, Brown, and Gray — were not only presumed to be guilty of whatever they were being accused, but were vilified in the media and by law enforcement as a means to justify these actions at the center of the coverage.

But this degree of vilification isn’t new. It existed at epidemic levels in the American South during Jim Crow. It existed at epidemic levels following integration. It existed at epidemic levels when the CIA and Nicaraguan Contra’s are alleged to have introduced crack cocaine into South Central Los Angeles.

This vilification, coupled with preconceived notions indoctrinated into us about people of color, are why police cannot be held to a higher standard than the rest of us. After all, they have the capacity to be bigots, just like the rest of us. They are fallible human beings, just like the rest of us. Just because they have a badge doesn’t mean they are exempt from the every day things for which the rest of us are subject to the criminal justice system. If a CEO of a Fortune 500 company rapes their secretary, they are still a rapist. If a teacher coerces a young child into sex, they are still a pedophile. If a Wall Street executive launders money, they are still an embezzler.

Similarly, if a police officer kills someone without justification, they are still a murderer. That is the standard.

Featured image by Tony Webster, available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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About Robert L. Franklin

Ah, the About Me section - social networking's excuse for you sounding like an elitist prick. Hmm... what to say? What to say?
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