The case of 20 year old University of Virginia (“U VA”) student, Martese Johnson, beaten, arrested and charged by police with obstruction of justice, public intoxication and swearing should matter to anyone who cares about justice in this country. Mr. Johnson is lucky to be alive today. He could have died a senseless violent death at the hands of the Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control (“ABC”) Board police for being denied entry to a bar on the early morning hours of March 18. The ABC police in front of witnesses bashed Johnson’s face as evident by his bloody face in photos. Eric Garner died at the choking hands of a New York police officer while stopped for allegedly possessing illegal cigarettes. And Michael Brown died a violent death in Ferguson, Missouri for running away from police officer Darren Wilson. Twelve year old Tamir Rice died a violent death for playing with a toy BB gun on a playground in Cleveland as his sister watched nearby. And countless other unnamed young blacks die violent deaths at the hands of police across the country every year.
Martese Johnson is an honors student, student activist on campus and studying 2 majors with dreams and ambitions. To the ABC police, he was likely considered a thug, not belonging in the U. VA. community, up to no good, or obstructing justice as the catchall term police often refer to young blacks under arrest. Johnson is said to have been drinking and used profanity against the police. On video tape, while on the ground being restrained by police, he calls them “f—ing racists”. That would not justify, to a reasonable person, the need for the police brutally beating and bloodying his face requiring 10 stitches. Since many students were celebrating St. Patrick’s day at nearby bars and pubs, it’s safe to assume that Johnson was not the only student who was out drinking. He was arrested less than ½ mile from the U VA Campus.
The video of the ABC police arresting Johnson is appalling.
Thanks to social media, we are able to learn the specifics almost in real time where there have been witnesses other than the victim and police officers. Witnesses must come forward in these cases to tell or show, if video is available. University of Virginia President Terese Sullivan urges any witnesses to the incident or who have direct knowledge of the incident to immediately contact the Virginia State Police at 804-674-2000. And Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe ordered an investigation.
The case of Martese Johnson is not an aberration. On March 8, 2015, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of March on Selma. Selma is occurring everywhere across America. These acts of police violence like Johnson’s case are our modern day Selma. As the violent acts in Selma perpetrated against blacks resulted in the passing of the Voting Rights Act, today’s acts of police brutality in violation of civil rights laws must be met with new laws enacted to protect innocent victims of police brutality. Excessive force or sometimes deadly force may be deemed necessary where the officer’s life is in danger or serious bodily harm is likely to occur to the officer. In the most recent cases of unarmed victims, including Martese Johnson, that is not the situation.
Beyond reporting on these individual cases of police brutality, there must be systemic changes. Very few officers are charged for use of excessive force and even fewer are ever convicted as the most recent cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner show. When an officer commits an alleged act of brutality of excessive force, he is usually placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation by their local police department’s Internal Affairs unit and the local prosecutor’s office. Whenever police are involved in what is described as a police brutality case, there should be independent investigations.
Currently, there is no reliable national database of police brutality excessive force cases whether by shooting or any other means causing death or injury. Police are allowed to self- report these instances. We have no way of knowing how many other excessive force cases occur yearly. While we appear to track just about everything in the U.S., there is a failure to track police brutality excessive force cases. In order to correct the problem, we must first understand the scope and magnitude of the problem.
And on a state level, there should also be tracking of police brutality cases. In Maryland, the American Civil Liberty Union (“ACLU”) compiled a report of 109 police brutality death cases occurring between 2010 – 2014 with 70% of those being black. Maryland’s African American population is 30% according to recent U.S. census data. More than 40% of the victims were unarmed. According to the report, less than 2% of the officers were charged. Both a national and state public database would allow individuals to search for details and descriptions on cases including race, injury or death sustained, names of officers, whether charges were brought against the officer, civil cases and the outcome of cases.
In Maryland, there are currently 10 pending bills relating to police brutality during the 2015 legislative session. That is a start. Until we know the scope of a problem, it is difficult to fix it. We need national and state data bases and laws to ensure that police do not hide behind the shield of their office when wrongdoing occurs. We need tighter laws to protect the rights of innocent unarmed victims at the hands of police brutality. And we need to start now.
Post Script: As of March 19, Maryland bills backed by the ACLU to make it easier to file police misconduct cases, investigate and prosecute police brutality have either died in committee or are on life support. They are not expected to pass in part due to the heavy lobbying by the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former prosecutor. She is seen frequently in the media addressing issues of race and gender in the law. As a legal analyst, she appears on Al Jazeera America, Arise TV, BET, C- Span, Fox 5, RT America, Sky News and TV One, among others. She also contributes to the Huffington Post and the Women’s Media Center.