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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 12/10/14

US Criminal Justice System Under Fire

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As mass anger over two separate grand jury decisions not to indict white police officers in the racially-charged killing of 18 year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo and Eric Garner in New York City continues to gather steam, US attorney general Eric Holder has come out, vowing to take aim at what he acknowledged is the broad perception of injustice in the criminal justice system.

"Our prosecutors will conduct an independent, thorough, fair and expeditious investigation," Holder said, as news filtered that another grand jury has failed to indict a New York city cop in the chokehold death of yet another unarmed African-American.

"Mr. Garner's death is one of several recent incidents across the country that have tested the sense of trust that must exist between law enforcement and the communities they are charged to serve and protect."

To Mr. Holder, the first African-American to hold the post, it appears the problem can be magically solved with filing civil right charges against the officers using current federal statutes. The US attorney general even issued binding guidelines days later that ban racial profiling by Federal law enforcement agencies.

But such an approach is being dismissed as too "simplistic" by critics, who believe that a long-term strategy that include major judicial reforms at both the local and state levels are what's badly needed. Critics have pointed out that police brutality has more to do with the obvious failure of the criminal justice system to hold rogue cops accountable for their actions than with actions of individual police officers.

Moreover, they say, police brutality and judicial misconduct occurs mostly at the local and state level, where prosecutors and corrupt judges often overlook police misconduct, especially in those cases that have not resulted in death.

That, they charged, has rendered the attorney general's ban a little moot. "Ït is not just they're using excessive force,"said Ed Roberts, a community consultant, referring to the two cops, one in Ferguson, the other in New York City, where two grand juries failed to obtain an indictment. "But how the justice system responds to charges and allegations of brutality and misconduct by the police."

According to those critics, among them several prominent civil rights leaders, it would take more than just federal civil rights charges -- often seen as a band-aid approach -- to rectify a fundamental flaw in the criminal justice system that has affected African-Americans for generations. "Filing criminal civil right charges against the police offices is one thing, but how do you make sure it doesn't happen again?" asked attorney James Debrosse, a longtime community advocate. "A long-term approach that takes into account the behaviors of certain prosecutors, district attorneys, state and local judges are what's needed."

Speaking on NPR's On Point, Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor and current law professor at Georgetown University, noted that racial discrimination has had a devastating impact on the lives of ordinary African-Americans and that a new concept is needed to address what he sees as "structural discrimination."

"It has built a major barrier to the achievement of African-Americans," he noted. "These are discriminations we can do something about."

Michael Brown, an 18 year old unarmed African-American, was gunned down by a white police officer following a brief struggle. And Eric Garner, selling loose cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk, died from a chokehold -- a practice long banned by the NYPD. The city's medical examiner later declared his death a homicide.

In both cases, a grand jury failed to return indictments, prompting mass protests across major US cities, including Ferguson, Boston, New York, even as far away as Berkley, CA.

City Councilman Jumaane D. Williams, who co-chair a Council task force on gun violence, summed up his view following the grand jury decision: "People keep telling us to 'stay calm'and 'keep the peace,' but where is justice and accountability for this life lost? The video is there; but video or not, there is always a reason why its ok that unarmed Black and Brown people are killed by law enforcement. Dan Donovan and Staten Island's grand jury failed, but the Mayor and Commissioner cannot fail. Department protocol was violated and another unarmed man is dead," he said. "Pantaleo must be held accountable for killing Eric Garner and he must be fired immediately."


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Mithout Gomez is a veteran journalist who's covered local, national and international issues.

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