By Patrick McAuliffe
In May of 2015, my innocent dewy eyes beheld Binghamton University in all of its austere splendor on a campus tour, and they were immediately drawn to the “Police Brutality” cover of Binghamton Review. The Editor-in-Chief at the time, Sean Glendon, tackled the problem of citizens dying at the hands of police in response to Eric Garner’s unjust murder over selling cigarettes on the New York City sidewalk. In the wake of the surge in Black Lives Matter protests this summer and the grand jury’s recent decision on Breonna Taylor’s murder, I felt it relevant to reflect on how far we’ve come as a nation at solving police brutality… which is to say, not fucking far enough.
In his articles, Sean was very critical of the media’s tendency to set an implicit agenda by overcovering certain issues and undercovering others that may have more relevance or political weight. However, regarding police brutality, he encouraged the media to continue covering the issue with zeal as an avenue to public outcry and social change. Sean also wrote that a supplemental solution to raising public awareness on this issue comes from two types of cameras: the cell phone and the police body camera. To paraphrase, he argued that “citizen journalists” provide more police accountability to the public by capturing a firsthand experience of instances with unnecessary and, often, illegal, uses of force against a suspect. Conversely, police body cameras would allow the public to see situations from an officer’s point of view and decide for themselves whether a given altercation warranted unnecessary force from the officer. First popularized after Michael Brown’s murder in 2014, this second avenue to public awareness was implemented widely in many police departments across the country.
These solutions, while good-intentioned, fall far short of their theoretical benefits. The past several years have shown that police departments simply do not care about public accountability. They are more willing to gas and shoot at protestors than have a discussion about their shortcomings. According to Wired in an article from July 2020 on police body cams, most police departments are permitted to handle body camera footage internally, and many departments are not willing to turn over footage to outside organizations or even subjects in the footage itself. Laws vary widely between departments, but for the most part, the police are unwilling to reveal unedited body camera footage, especially in instances where the officers resort to violence against suspects. Releasing footage for a given case can take months or even years when courts must literally force a department to turn over the video.
Public accountability must, therefore, fall to the “citizen journalist” and the camera on their phone. In the last five years, videos posted by bystanders on social media sites have provided a much-needed insight into police brutality that the departments themselves have refused to offer. Phone footage in high-profile cases like Philando Castile, Elijah McClain, and George Floyd have spurred public outrage on a level previously unheard of. The video evidence from Floyd’s murder even led to the conviction of his killer Derek Chauvin and criminal charges for the other three officers on the scene at the time.
The case that hits me closest to home, however, is Breonna Taylor’s murder in Louisville, Kentucky. She was killed by a no-knock raid on her apartment in March, and her case only gained national attention in May around the same time as George Floyd. The Louisville police have been extremely slow to act on public pressure, only firing Detective Brett Hankinson in June and not charging John Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove. The latter two officers fired the fatal bullets, and Hankinson was indicted by a grand jury on the 23rd of September for three counts of “wanton endangerment”—his shots during the raid were fired blindly and struck a neighboring house.
All following statements are made via the New York Times’ coverage of Breonna Taylor’s case. The police were originally issued a no-knock warrant to search Taylor’s apartment due to her previous affiliation with her ex-boyfriend, who was suspected of dealing drugs. Her affiliation with him had since ended by the time of the raid. The warrant was changed to “knock and announce,” but Taylor’s boyfriend Kenneth Walker asserted that he did not hear any declaration of police. This is corroborated by Walker’s call to 9-1-1, where he says, “somebody kicked in the door and shot my girlfriend.” Walker fired at the police in self-defense, believing that his home was being invaded, and shot Officer Mattingly in the leg once. The police returned fire for a total of 32 shots, according to AP News. Taylor struggled to breathe for about five minutes after being shot and there was no ambulance on the scene, contrary to standard practice. According to dispatch logs, Taylor was not given any medical attention for twenty minutes after the raid, and the Jefferson County coroner said that she had probably died a few minutes after being shot with no hope of saving.
The egregious breach of justice surrounding this entire case is unfathomable to me and should be to anyone who strives for justice. My blood boils seeing how some right-wing media outlets cherry-pick facts of Breonna Taylor’s case to avoid the ugly truth that these officers were not and will not be held accountable. Many police departments know that they will have these types of outlets in their corner—Fox News, The Daily Wire, Breitbart, etc.—so, as recent police responses to peaceful protests have shown, they will use excessive force against peaceful calls for transparency and accountability, and the bootlicking masses will eat up the “law and order” schtick.
What is there to be done to hold police officers accountable for their excessive force? One step is the legal doctrine of qualified immunity, established by several court cases in the 1980s and 2000s. Qualified immunity, in simple terms, protects police officers from civil suits filed by a victim of excessive use of force. To win such a case, the victim must prove that the officer violated a “clearly established” law regarding their conduct, which has been interpreted in the past to mean an existing suit against an officer for conduct exactly like what the victim is suing for. John Oliver explains this key distinction and virtual loophole very well in his Last Week Tonight segment on Police. It is important to note that this is only in regards to civil suits; criminal charges against police officers are exceedingly rare, and most charges against police are dropped if they are brought up at all. Even Philando Castile’s murderer, Officer Jeronimo Yanez, was originally charged with second-degree manslaughter and dangerous discharge of a firearm, but despite the public outcry and video evidence posted on Facebook by his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds, his charges were dropped and he was instead fired.
I’ve seen many stories from people on social media asking what event in the United States’ troubled history radicalized them. If I had to choose one, it would be the events of the past several months. In my youth, I was raised on the Limbaugh Letter and the Michael Savage talk show in the car on road trips. Even in my twilight years of college, although I had left the conservative mindset behind, I still had a naive hope that the police’s primary purpose truly was to protect and serve their communities. Whatever the reason—perhaps going a bit stir-crazy during this pandemic—I saw what was happening in our most marginalized communities with fresh eyes and it struck a chord with me. It is a discordant, somber chord, but a deep chord nonetheless. I have no hope in the police anymore, because I know that they serve themselves first and foremost. The entities with the legal monopoly on violence have shown that they have no intention of giving up any of their power. Black, brown, manic, autistic, high out of one’s mind or sloppy drunk—none of it matters with a gun and taser at one’s hip and the support of the Thin Blue Line. My own home city of Rochester has made national news for yet another instance of police brutality, covered in this issue by Spencer.
My hope in the system has faded, and no amount of scarce good apples can change it. Sean lists several victims of police brutality in his May 2015 article and acknowledges that they will probably not be the last. I don’t think he or anyone could have known the mountains of bodies and the textbooks of names that have been added in a measly five years. I don’t have clever solutions or clear policy goals to make sure none of this injustice happens again, because the enemy is so large and so established, and its roots run so deep that I couldn’t tell you where to start cutting them. This is not to say they don’t exist, and activists of all kinds have kept the faith admirably; I just don’t know where to start. I think I’ll end things here with a transcript of Elijah McClain’s last words, released by the Aurora, Colorado Police Department almost a year after his murder in August of 2019.
“I can’t breathe. I have my ID right here. My name is Elijah McClain. That’s my house. I was just going home. I’m an introvert. I’m just different. That’s all. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why are you attacking me? I don’t even kill flies! I don’t eat meat! But I don’t judge people, I don’t judge people who do eat meat. Forgive me. All I was trying to do was become better. I will do it. I will do anything. Sacrifice my identity, I’ll do it. You all are phenomenal. You are beautiful and I love you. Try to forgive me. I’m a mood Gemini. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Ow, that really hurt. You are all very strong. Teamwork makes the dream work. Oh, I’m sorry I wasn’t trying to do that. I just can’t breathe correctly.”