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The killing of Ahmaud Arbery indicts all of us—conservatives and liberals alike—who willfully ignore the systemic questions | Column
After nearly a decade of these “exceptions,” it may be time, finally, to think of these killings as endemic, writes the former dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute.
The killing of Ahmaud Arbery, main photo, is another in a list of slayings, which include Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner (top row), Freddie Gray Jr., Walter Scott, Oscar Grant III (middle row), Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Botham Jean and Atatiana Jefferson (bottom row).
The killing of Ahmaud Arbery, main photo, is another in a list of slayings, which include Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner (top row), Freddie Gray Jr., Walter Scott, Oscar Grant III (middle row), Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Botham Jean and Atatiana Jefferson (bottom row). [ Times files ]
Published May 12, 2020
Updated May 13, 2020

The killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia is tragic in so many ways, it is hard to count them all.

There is the red-faced vigilantism unleashed on a 25-year-old black man jogging in a neighborhood two miles from home.

There is the video of the grotesque slaying, which police and prosecutors viewed when it occurred in late February. They were unmoved.

There is the one prosecutor who used a tainted legal principle—stand your ground—as a paper shield for former cop Gregory McMichael and son Travis, which helped protect them from arrest until last Thursday.

Stephen Buckley
Stephen Buckley [ Provided ]

It is easy to pass this all off as an anomaly. The facts are so galling that they tempt us to dismiss this brutality and corruption as an exception. Yet after nearly a decade of these “exceptions,” it may be time, finally, to think of them as endemic.

Ask my two children, both twentysomething, to name famous cases in which law enforcement and vigilantes have killed black people in recent years, and a long list spills out:

Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray Jr., Walter Scott, Oscar Grant III, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson. This list goes back to 2012. And these are the better-known cases.

In the wake of these killings, many local police departments turned to body cams, and some cities fired top police officials. But systemic failures persist.

Federal action has been shocking for its absence. After Michael Brown’s death in 2014 and the unrest that followed in Ferguson, Mo., President Barack Obama formed a task force, which, among other things, called for more information about police shootings and about civilian perceptions of law enforcement. A year later, in 2016, only nine states and cities had embraced its recommendations.

Since then, nothing.

It is hard to understand why. Recent surveys suggest that we are losing faith in our justice system. Two years ago, the National Center for State Courts found that 89 percent of respondents to its annual survey said they trusted police; that slid to 77 percent last year. Only 65 percent said they trust state courts.

The Global Corruption Barometer’s survey of Americans in 2017 revealed that 20 percent of respondents said police are “highly corrupt.” For black respondents, the figure rocketed to 60 percent.

Black Americans have mistrusted our criminal justice system for decades, and mistreatment by police in general isn’t new. Over the last century, no fewer than a half-dozen national commissions have looked at abuse and corruption in local law enforcement. And some have made a mark.

In 1931, President Herbert Hoover’s Wickersham Commission drew national attention to the brutalities, both physical and mental, police routinely visited upon suspects. As a result, courts ultimately began to hold police and prosecutors to more rigorous standards. Police departments created formal internal affairs units. Judges rejected forced confessions.

In the 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Katzenbach Commission spared no arm of our justice system in its recommendations, many of which were eventually adopted. It called for better pay for police, more crime prevention strategies, and the use of what we now call community policing.

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And in the 1990s, after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, Mayor Tom Bradley’s Christopher Commission helped compel Congress to pass legislation that has forced reforms on police departments through federal monitoring.

There are some 18,000 local police departments in the United States. And in those departments are many fine officers who carry out their daily duties with a fair mind and a calm hand.

We should expect this from every police officer, prosecutor, and judge. That cannot happen, though, without our taking another deep, painful look at our justice system’s failures.

Meaningful change in local law enforcement can take years. And change begins in the mirror.

Officials in the criminal justice system “must reexamine what they do,” the Katzenbach Commission wrote. “They must be honest about the system's shortcomings with the public and with themselves.”

The slaying of Ahmaud Arbery indicts not just the McMichaels or the prosecutors who waited 74 days to order their arrest. It indicts all of us—conservatives and liberals alike—who willfully ignore the systemic questions raised by his death.

If we don’t ask those questions, we won’t find answers. Which only guarantees that there will be many more Ahmaud Arberys.

Stephen Buckley is a former managing editor of the St. Petersburg (now Tampa Bay) Times, and former dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Times.