Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Character Assassination & The Specter of Police Bias

Jeronimo Yanez and his attorney Tom Kelly
On Monday afternoon, long-time Minneapolis community activist Mel Reeves used twelve words to sum up efforts by defense lawyers for St. Anthony PD officer Jeronimo Yanez to try and portray motorist Philando Castile as some kind of depraved delusional stoner too high to obey a simple police command.

"And now they are blaming a dead man for his own death."

As the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported, defense attorney Earl Gray used his final argument to try and convince a jury of five women and seven men that Yanez was forced to shoot Castile seven times (including two shots in the heart) because the cafeteria supervisor was so high on marijuana that he tried to grab a gun in his pocket.

But that contradicts eyewitness Diamond Reynolds who live-streamed on Facebook from the car for ten minutes moments after the shooting while calmly explaining to a hysterical Yanez that Castile was only reaching for his wallet to get his ID out as Yanez had ordered him to do before firing seven shots.

In fact, after getting pulled over for a broken tail light, Castile had politely explained to Yanez that he was carrying a gun, which he had a legal permit to do - so he wasn't breaking a law by having a gun in his pocket.

But as the Tribune article reports, Yanez's attorneys basically used the same kind of subconscious racial bias and flagrant stereotyping to assassinate Philando Castile's character in court that the panicky cop used when he pulled Castile over in the first place.

Transcripts of a radio call made to his partner before pulling Castile over on July 6, 2016 reveal Yanez saying that Castile's skin color and "wide-set nose" matched a description of an armed robbery suspect who'd held up a convenience in the same area store on July 2nd.

George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin 
Both the defense and the prosecution delivered their final arguments Monday afternoon and the jury was scheduled to reconvene Tuesday morning at 9am.

When they will decide whether the 29-year-old will face any legal repercussions for shooting and killing an innocent man in his car in front of a woman and a 4-year-old girl.

Now if the defense arguments sound familiar they should.

The defense strategy in the Yanez case sounds exactly like the arguments that lawyers for the deranged, racist murderer George Zimmerman used as legal justification for their violence-prone client stalking, confronting then shooting and killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin back on February 26, 2012.

In that trial, Zimmerman's defense lawyers famously tried to slander the high-school student as some kind of violent drug-addicted thug based on the fact that he'd been suspended from school for ten days after some marijuana residue was found inside his backpack.

Like Jeronimo Yanez, just before the killing Zimmerman also radioed police to relay his suspicions, heightened by Matin's race, after seeing the kid walking home to his father's house with a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea he'd bought at the store - Zimmerman called 911 to report seeing a "suspicious person".

In both cases, it's almost as if a kind of internal character assassination took place in the mind of the killer before the crime - before a legal character assassination in the courtroom to assign blame for the killing on the person who's not there to testify on his own behalf.

There is a growing body of data on police traffic stops that is starting to shed light on how perception and internalized bias impacts the disparate ways that some members of law enforcement treat drivers they stop.

The recent New York Times article by Jonah Engel Bromwich about a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that American police officers who stop African-American drivers tend to treat them with less respect and use ruder language than they do with white drivers, offers insight.

When I first read the article last week, my first thought was admittedly a rather cynical one.

Was a scientific study really needed to validate complaints about biased policing based on race made by people of color for decades?

Now I freely confess that my initial reaction was probably related to pent up emotions I've internalized for years over specific incidents where I was unfairly targeted and pulled over by white police officers in New Jersey and New York City simply because of the color of my skin - not because of any vehicular violation like speeding or failure to use a turn signal.

Anger over high-profile incidents where African-American motorists ended up being killed after being stopped by police under legally questionable circumstances (Sandra Bland in Texas, Walter Scott in South Carolina to name a couple) probably contributed to my cynicism too.

But after taking a couple deep breaths and reading the rest of the article, I have to give a lot of credit to the Oakland, CA police department for having the guts to allow researchers to access and study hundreds of hours of video footage taken from police body cams and dashboard cams to study the body language and verbal interactions of their officers.

Especially when they knew that some not-so-nice aspects of policing were going to be caught on tape.

Clearly it's a positive thing that concrete scientific data analyzed in detail offers concrete proof of biased policing based on race, but the analysis can't stop there.

24-year-old father and husband John Hernandez
Given the recent murder indictment of Harris County (Texas) Sheriff's deputy Chauna Thompson and her husband Terry for the vicious beating and strangulation of a 24-year-old Hispanic father named John Hernandez, I think it's fair to say that deeper psychological analysis of the thinking that permeates the minds of some members of law enforcement is needed.

Watching that tape of Terry Thompson strangling Hernandez outside of a Denny's left me sickened and confused.

I mean even if, as witnesses claim, Hernandez was drunk and urinating on the side of the building, what would posses Terry Thompson to beat him to the point of unconsciousness, THEN jump on top of the guy and put him in a choke hold so he couldn't breathe?

His wife Chauna Thompson, a local sheriff's deputy, isn't just standing by while it happened.

She can be seen on the videotape taken by a bystander actually pinning Hernandez's left arm to the ground while he's being choked as the man's wife and daughter scream for them to let him go.

Clearly not all the facts are known in this case, but there seems to be little question that both Terry and Chauna Thompson seem almost clinically detached as Hernandez's face literally starts to turn purple from lack of oxygen.

The National Academy of Sciences' report doesn't tell us what is going through the minds of those members of law enforcement who seem so quick to resort to violence or deadly force during encounters where neither are called for.

Terry and Chauna Thompson
But the dehumanizing ways in which some members of law enforcement treat ethnic minorities is clearly at issue in the case of the incident at Denny's.

Did the Thompsons feel entitled or empowered to treat someone that way for public urination because she was a sheriff's deputy? (which is scary in and of itself)

Frankly I think it's also important to ask how their perceptions of Hernandez's ethnicity affected how they treated him.

Would they have treated an inebriated white, blond-haired college frat boy that way had they seen him urinating behind a Denny's late at night?

It's not just the Thompsons either, a lot of questions are now surrounding the actions of the local law enforcement officers who responded to the scene as well.

As an article posted on CNN.com reported, Hernandez's wife, who along with their young daughter pleaded with Terry Thompson to release Hernandez and stop beating him, was detained in a police vehicle for four hours at the scene and had her cell phone confiscated.

And the officers who responded initially tried to file assault charges against Hernandez after he'd been transported to the hospital unconscious and not breathing - he later slipped into a coma and died from lack of oxygen to the brain and having his chest and lungs compressed.

While this story is still gaining traction and more information is sure to come out about the incident, the Thompsons have been released on $100,000 bond - Chauna Thompson has been reassigned to desk duty pending an investigation.

Terry Thompson's lawyer is already hard at work assassinating the character of John Hernandez - telling reporters that Thompson was choking the life out of Hernandez in self-defense.

What's seen on that videotape doesn't look like self-defense, it looks like 2nd degree homicide.

Regardless, Minneapolis community activist Mel Reeves words best sum up the defense strategy that the Thompson's attorneys will likely pursue in court to absolve their clients of legal responsibility for choking a man to death: "And now they are blaming a dead man for his own death."

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