The instant the video of a Minneapolis cop knee choking to death George Floyd, there were two calls. One was for the firing of the killer cop and the other officers who stood by and did nothing during the assault on Floyd. This call was swiftly answered with the firing of the four cops.
The other call was for their prosecution. This is the far tougher one to get answered. The call for prosecution of killer cops has been layered with frustration, anger and near futility. It's a call that first falls in the laps of local DAs and prosecutors. In almost every case it quickly falls out of their laps. They refuse to prosecute.
This tosses the ball to the Feds. This may be the case with the Floyd slaying too. The FBI and Justice Department officials quickly announced they are investigating the killing.
However, as with local prosecution of cop killings, the federal call almost always dies an equally swift death. This is where Democratic presidential Joe Biden comes in. He did condemn the police related murder of Georgia jogger Ahmaud Arbery. He has spoken out on police abuse. He has made criminal justice reform a crucial part of his "Lift Every Voice" multi issue presidential campaign Black Agenda. He has done copious mea culpas for his cheerlead of the 1994 Clinton Crime Bill.
Biden knows that he got back in the presidential hunt with the near solid support of Black voters in the key primaries. He need an impassioned and exuberant crusade like turnout of Black voters to ensure a White House win. The one issue above all others that has inflamed, infuriated, aroused, and propelled thousands of Blacks into the streets is the issue of police killings of unarmed Blacks and the dogged refusal of local DAs to prosecute killer cops.
So, Joe has can finish this off by publicly pledging once in the White House he will put the full force of the Justice Department and the FBI into the prosecution of cops who wantonly kill when local prosecutors refuse to prosecute. The Floyd killing showed the urgency of this.
The standard operating procedure to federal prosecutions in police killings has been this. Time passes, emotions cool, and the public and the media move on. And in a few weeks, or more likely a few months' time, the Justice Department quietly announces that it will take no further action in the case.
The Justice Department time and again has made it clear that it is only a "backstop" to local prosecutors. This means that it rigidly adheres to the legal doctrine of separation of federal and state powers. The feds scrupulously defer to local authorities to bring charges. If state or county prosecutors won't bring charges or bungle the prosecution when they do, the Justice Department does not regard it as its responsibility to override the decision of local authorities not to retry or second guess a defendant's acquittal. So, again, the clock keeps running on if, when, or whether local prosecutors will act.
The Justice Department also is reluctant to step on the toes of local police officials. When the Justice Department on rare occasions slaps a consent decree on a city's police department after an extensive investigation finds widespread police abuse and misconduct there, it walks a careful line. Federal officials make it clear that the federal government will not purport to substitute the judgment of its monitors for that of local police administrators.
The see-no-evil policy of the feds toward police violence is even more problematic given that the number of police abuse complaints nationally remains high. The Department gets thousands of complaints yearly. A number of FBI agents and attorneys in the Department's Civil Rights Division have sole responsibility to investigate and prosecute civil rights cases, and this includes police abuse. The overwhelming majority of the civil rights cases the Department investigates are police abuse cases. In response to widespread protests over the lack of federal action on police abuse cases, the Violent Crime and Control Act of 1994 authorized the Justice Department to collect data on the frequency and types of police abuse complaints.
the numbers on police abuse helps the feds get a handle on how widespread
police misconduct is. But it doesn't help much when it comes to actual
prosecutions of police offenders.
A prosecution in a police shooting case, even a failed prosecution, sends a powerful message to law enforcement agencies that the federal government will go after lawbreakers no matter whether they wear a mask or a badge. A federal prosecution puts police and city officials on notice that they must take stronger action to rein in the use of excessive force in their departments.
Joe, there is a precedent for presidents directing their Justice Department to prosecute racially motivated violence committed by cops. Lyndon Johnson ordered vigorous federal prosecutions of police, Klan, and racist killers of Blacks. Gregory Floyd is the name on everyone's lips who believe that when cops kill, they must face their day in court. Joe, since that day almost never comes for them in a local court, as president you can change that. Publicly pledge to prosecute cops who blatantly kill when the locals won't.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of Why Black Lives Still Matter (Middle Passage Press) He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network