Tamir Rice’s family received a $6 million settlement as did the families of Freddie Gray and Eric Garner for wrongs committed by the police resulting in their loved ones’ deaths. Money does not equal justice. In America, where a twelve year old African American child is gunned down for playing in a park near his home and no one is held accountable, indicted, charged or arrested, there is no justice. When a 26 year old African American man is taken into police custody in a police van and receives a spinal cord injury and dies, justice remains elusive as 6 Baltimore police remain free awaiting trials. And when an African American man is arrested by police on the streets of New York City who then yells “I can’t breathe” and dies in a police choke hold with no charges against the police officers, there is no justice.
The word “justice” is often used but rarely defined in our culture. The legal symbol of justice is the statue of the blind folded woman holding the equally balanced scales of justice. The scales of justice indicate that justice doesn’t see the color of one’s skin and is equally balanced. But is justice really color blind and balanced?
Inscribed on the Department of Justice Building in Washington, DC are the words “Liberty is maintained in the security of justice.” The Department of Justice building is within minutes of the Supreme Court – where the highest court building’s façade bears two mottos: “Equal Justice Under the Law”; And on another side, the inscription reads “Justice the guardian of liberty. Said another way, justice is the guardian or protector of freedom.
And yet justice evades many African Americans and other minorities in the criminal justice system, particularly in the area of police involved killings. When the Democratic convention is held in Philadelphia in July, 2016, a platform on criminal justice may be discussed. Proponents of a just criminal justice system should demand that mandatory statistics be kept on the number and information of people killed by police. Presently, no formal database exists in every state. Individual scholars and a few journalists attempt to provide information on police shootings which result in death. Even FBI Director James Coomey supports a national database of police shootings and calls the lack of one “embarrassing”. Most of the information collected and widely disseminated for 2015 is from the Washington Post. And yet Attorney General Loretta Lynch states the police should not be required to maintain an accounting of those whom the police killed. She does not support a federal mandate requiring accountability of those police shooting and killing people.
I believe there should be mandatory accounting for all 50 states and the District of Columbia to maintain a database—regardless of the cost of doing it. The cost of taking a life far exceeds and outweighs any cost of keeping track of the problem. We cannot truly fix a problem until we fully understand the gravity of the problem. Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray are just a few victims killed by police whose names and circumstances we know.
Monetary settlements will not fix the problem of police wrongfully killing people—only justice in a criminal court will suffice.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former Baltimore prosecutor. She is seen on Al Jazeera, CBS News, BET, C-Span, Fox 5 DC, MSNBC and PBS among others. Her Op Ed articles appear in the Washington Post, Huffington Post and Baltimore Sun.
UPDATED: This post was updated on May 10, 2016.