This is one of those mornings where I have a lot to squeeze into my segment. As you already know, the United States is a deeply problematic country. As a journalist my struggle is never finding material to talk or write about – quite the opposite – my struggle is wading through all of the problematic issues and choosing just one issue.
For just a few minutes I want to unpack two recent cases of police brutality, then I want to address why it is almost impossible to hold these officers accountable, and then I want to close by telling you about several amazing people trying to change the justice system from the inside out.
We’ve spoken here on air several times about the shooting death of Stephon Clark – the 22 year old brother in Sacramento who was shot at 20 times and killed by police in his own backyard. Stephon was unarmed and non-violent. He didn’t even say a word to police before they began unloading their weapons.
Everything about this shooting was awful. And at the root of what is unnerving us about this case is the reality that unarmed, non-violent Black men are consistently, regularly shot & killed by police in this country while violent, fully-armed white men, who’ve sometimes killed dozens of people, are routinely confronted and arrested by police not only without a shot ever being fired, but these men normally don’t even have a single scratch on their faces.
Stephon Clark should be alive right now.
And should a 34 year old brother named Danny Ray Thomas, who was also unarmed and non-violent, when he was shot and killed by police last Thursday in Houston, Texas. In broad daylight, Thomas appeared to be having a mental health crisis of some kind. He was literally walking around a busy street, with his pants down, seemingly very confused. He genuinely appeared to not even know where he was. His family said he has struggled with mental health his whole life. A police officer who happened to be in the area, seeing Thomas, pulled his car over, and confronted him.
While onlookers filmed this, Thomas continued to appear completely confused. He had nothing in his hands, and nothing in his waste. He was not violent. And then suddenly, the officer pulls out his gun and shoots him – killing him right there on the street. This time, police can’t even say they thought Thomas had a gun, or a knife, or a crowbar. The brother needed an ambulance.
So both of these shootings are wrong. Point blank. They were avoidable. Stephon Clark and Danny Ray Thomas should be alive right now. But I need you to understand that cops are getting away with these shootings because they are legal.
Two Supreme Court cases, Tennessee v. Garner and Graham v. Connor, both ruled on the mind 80s, determined two things:
- A police officer is allowed to use lethal force if they believe the person poses a serious safety risk of any kind. The key word there is believe. And if an officer is allowed to act on their belief in the moment, it’s damn near impossible to prove that they believed otherwise. That was from Tennessee v. Garner.
- Graham v. Connor ruled that even if police have the facts wrong in a case, like believing that Stephon Clark had a gun or a crowbar when he actually had a cell phone, by law you are not allowed to hold them accountable for hindsight. That is, even hindsight proves the officer was indeed wrong, it doesn’t matter. You can only judge a cop on what they thought was true in the moment.
So many of you have asked me what we can do. Let me give us two things right now.
So listen, most countries around the world do not have those laws, those two cases in place that I just told you about. And we should raise the money, and build new cases, much like we did in previous generations, and fight to have those Tennessee v. Garner & Graham v. Connor overturned. I actually think we could win.
And I’ll close with this.
We have to elect radical new district attorneys in every city in America who openly say they will go out of their way to hold bad cops accountable.
That’s why I’ve endorsed a new candidate in Sacramento where Stephon Clark was killed. His name is Noah Phillips and he’s a great man determined to hold police accountable. While the cases are difficult, it’s not impossible, and you have to have DA’s who understand this to win. My friend Stephanie Morales, the DA of Portsmouth, Virginia charged and convicted a cop of murder. It can be done.
Yesterday I also endorsed three brilliant Black women in DA’s races in San Diego – that’s Genieveve Jones-Wright, in Oakland & Alameda County – that’s Pam Price, and in Contra Costa County, California– that’s Diane Becton.
Their races are this June and we aim to win in all of them.
My final thought is this – we have try something different. And that’s exactly what I’m trying to do here.
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