Should police murderers go to prison?

April 22, 2015

Marlene Martin looks at a question coming up in the Black Lives Matter movement.

DO WE want the killer cops to go to jail?

This might seem like an obvious question for the Black Lives Matter movement. Its biggest protests came late last year when grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City refused to indict the officers who murdered Mike Brown and Eric Garner. Today, in Chicago, where I live, anti-racists are angrily protesting the acquittal of Dante Servin, who was on trial for killing Rekia Boyd in 2012 when Servin opened fire at a group of young people in a Southwest Side park.

You might think anyone participating in the movement would want to see such cops indicted, prosecuted, convicted and put behind bars. But this issue has become a topic of debate among some groups of activists.

For example, some protesters at a Chicago demonstration last year objected to the slogan "Send the killer cops to jail." Similarly, at a public forum, a respected leader in the movement commented that she thought it was positive that Jon Burge--the former Chicago police commander who oversaw the torture of more than 100 Black and Latino suspects--was now out of prison.

Dante Servin, the murderer of Rekia Boyd, in court before the charges against him were dismissed
Dante Servin, the murderer of Rekia Boyd, in court before the charges against him were dismissed

The objection is that putting killer police officers on trial and locking them up gives legitimacy to a system that is racist and violent to the core, and encourages people to have a false faith in it.

I agree that the system is racist and violent to the core, but I also think that activists can call for the prosecution and imprisonment of killer cops, while at the same time upholding their principles, including a vision of a future world without prisons or cops. In fact, the struggle to hold police responsible for their racist violence can help make the movement bigger, politically stronger and more confident--so that it can continue to organize for those bigger changes.

THE PEOPLE in the movement who raise questions about jailing killer police officers are prison abolitionists. Their logic is that if we are in favor of dismantling prisons, we shouldn't be for sending anyone to them now--and we ought to be in favor of releasing prisoners now, even they are people like Jon Burge, who served a very short time behind bars in connection with his role as head of a police torture ring.

I'm also in favor of a society without prisons. We want to work toward a day where no one is incarcerated and where prisons are boarded up for good or converted into useful buildings (if that's possible). A society that gets rid of prisons wouldn't have a police force like what exists now, and it would certainly come up with far more advanced ways of coping with individuals who attempt to harm others.

But even to think about such a future emphasizes the obvious point--we are very far from that now. And so the question is: What helps us concretely to build a movement that can work toward that goal in the future--but that can also confront the abuse and violence inflicted by police every day, disproportionately against people of color?

In order to address this, we need to look at the bigger picture.

As the socialist Eugene Debs often said, the criminal injustice system in the U.S. is like a net designed to catch the minnows and let the whales slip through. Add in the racist nature of the system, and the inevitable result is that prisons are filled with poor people who are disproportionately people of color.

Wealthy people commit the same crimes every day, but they can hire good lawyers and avoid conviction or at least get light sentences. Plus, there are other crimes that the rich commit daily, but no one is ever punished since their crimes are legal in a capitalist society.

Because the justice system is part of a state apparatus to maintain the status quo, the men and women who run that system are also above the law. Prosecutors commit misconduct on a daily basis. They hide evidence, go after the wrong people even when they know otherwise, threaten and cajole suspects--and even if they are caught, they are hardly even reprimanded.

The same is true with police. Even when officers are caught on videotape committing clearly improper and illegal acts, like the beating of Rodney King in the 1991 or the chokehold murder of Eric Garner last summer, they never see the inside of a jail cell, even if they are prosecuted.

Of the dozens of cops and detectives who worked under Jon Burge carrying out torture against African American and Latino suspects in Chicago from 1972 to 1991, only Burge went to jail--and on a federal perjury charge; he was never charged by the Cook County prosecutors he worked with as a cop. The other torturers continued working for the Chicago Police Department--some still to this day.

The same is true about more everyday police harassment and abuse. In Chicago, journalists and activists pressured the city to release a list of police officers with more than 10 complaints against them during the five-year period between 2001 and 2006. There are 662 cops on the list--some of them with as many as 50 abuse complaints, which adds up to about one per month. Nearly every single abuse complaint on the list is followed by the number "600"--which indicates that no action was taken against the officer.

Another report from a University of Chicago law professor found that between 2002 to 2004, there were 10,149 complaints filed against police abuse--and only 19 of these complaints led to suspensions of a week or more.

The message is clear: Cops can expect to do what they want and suffer no consequences. So on the rare occasions when they are punished, it usually takes mass pressure to achieve this. The North Charleston, South Carolina, cop who shot Walter Scott in the back might have gone free, even though his crime was documented on video--but he committed the killing while the Black Lives Matter movement has shone a spotlight on police violence, and so he is one of the very rare instances of a cop on trial for murder for an on-duty shooting.

When our side, against all the odds, is able to get a killer cop indicted and even convicted, it doesn't give the system greater legitimacy. Both the struggle itself, win or lose, and the success when we do win help to expose the racism and violence of the police and the racial and social inequality of a system that claims to stand for justice, but carries out the opposite.

THERE IS another reason for demanding that the killer cops go to jail--to try to stop other killers by making them fear that they could also be held responsible.

This is what you hear most of all from the family members of victims of police violence--that they are fighting for justice so no one has to go through what they have.

Constance Malcolm's 18-year-old son Ramarley Graham was shot and killed in 2012 while standing in the bathroom of his New York City apartment. The city agreed to a $3.9 million settlement with the family, but Malcolm insists that real justice would be for Richard Haste, the cop who killed her son, to be "fired and prosecuted to the fullest extend of the law," she said in an interview with Colorlines in February.

When the interviewer asked Constance if "keeping up the fight is the ultimate display of faith in the system," she replied, "I would say, if you just sit and let police kill us and not be held accountable, it will keep happening."

Ron Kuby, a left-wing defense lawyer in New York, agrees. Interviewed for an article for the Nation, he pointed out that the money for settlements with victims of police violence or their families doesn't come out of the police budget, but from local government--so the financial pinch isn't felt by police departments. Kuby argues that only criminal prosecution has any chance of changing police behavior.

Organizing to get police indicted and sent to prison isn't easy, and even when it is successful, the punishment is almost always far less than what it should be. The murder of Oscar Grant III in an Oakland transit station in 2009 caused an upsurge of angry protest. After months of organizing, Grant's killer, Johannes Mehserle, was charged with murder, making him the first cop in California to be tried for murder for a shooting committed on duty.

But the jury eventually voted to convict Mehserle of the least serious manslaughter charge. He was sentenced to two years in prison, and only served one behind bars. "What you take from this is that Oscar Grant's life was not worth very much," said John Burris, a lawyer for Grant's family.

In Chicago, activists are reeling after a judge directed an acquittal for Dante Servin, who murdered 22-year-old Rekia Boyd in 2012. Boyd and some friends were in a park when Servin, who was off duty at the time, got angry that they were being noisy. From over his shoulder while in his car, he fired off five shots from his unregistered Glock. One shot hit Rekia in the head, killing her. Yet the judge even cleared Servin on a charge of reckless conduct and reckless discharge of a firearm.

THE GOAL of everyone protesting police violence and the criminal injustice system is to make sure Black lives count for more than this. This will only be guaranteed in a world where racism is eradicated and the current injustice system is overturned completely. But in order to get to such a world, we need to build a struggle organized around concrete demands in the here and now.

To take a different example, the struggle to win $15 an hour as the minimum wage is a concrete and ambitious demand that has built a strong movement--but achieving this won't get rid of the exploitation of low-wage workers. As long as we have wages, we are in favor of workers getting a fairer share of what is owed to them--though under capitalism, they will never be paid everything that is owed to them.

Winning better wages strengthens the movement by showing that struggle can achieve real gains for workers that improves their lives. Does this mean we are sowing faith in capitalism because a just demand has been achieved? No, because as we fight, we also raise what it will take to win a society with true equality, without exploitation.

The same thing applies to the anti-racist and anti-police violence struggle today. In that fight, we should support measures that can curb the abuses and violence of police. A number come to mind: demilitarizing the police departments that have gotten surplus military equipment from the Pentagon; making every cop wear a body camera; requiring all interrogations to be videotaped; diverting government funding from police departments to useful social programs; creating police oversight boards that are genuinely responsible to the communities where cops patrol.

Winning some or even all of these things won't end racist police violence once and for all. We know, for example, that police will find ways to shut off the body cameras--and even if they don't, just being captured on video carrying out a killing doesn't guarantee that a cop will be punished, as the case of Eric Garner and many others show.

But the video evidence is important for our side, even in these cases, because it helps activists counter the lies of police. In fact, there is research showing that body cameras cut down on police abuse--and so even this small measure of relief is important. And we don't end our list of demands with body cameras.

Win or lose, the struggle to achieve these advances can focus greater attention on the injustices driving the movement, put police and the injustice system on the defensive, and give more people confidence that change is possible.

We aren't yet in control of the state, and until we are, we can't do away with prisons and cops. We can work toward a society that doesn't need either one and talk about how we can get there. We just can't operate as if we live in that society already.

We need to say that the long-term goal of our struggle is a world without police and prisons--and in the here and now, we want police held responsible to the same law they impose on the rest of us, including going to jail for committing the crime of murder.

Thanks to Lichi D'Amelio, Brian Bean and Alan Maass for their contributions to this article.

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