If 2015 was the year in which the nation's police were caught on more than a few cellphone cameras, then it would seem that 2016 is the year that police officers and the agencies that support them began to push back, with or without good reason.
This month alone, the City of Cleveland filed suit against the family of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old shot and killed by police who a grand jury declined to indict in December. The suit sought to collect $500 in unpaid emergency medical bills incurred after Rice was shot in a city park and transported to a hospital. After public criticism of the suit reached a fever pitch, the city dropped the claim.
In addition to that, a police officer in Chicago who shot and killed a mentally ill teen and his unarmed neighbor filed suit against the teen's estate, claiming that the ensuing publicity had caused the officer permanent trauma.
And in Ferguson, where a Justice Department investigation found that the city had systematically financed a major portion of city government through a program of unlawful policing, unnecessary vehicle stops, large fines and court-fee collections, city officials refused to agree to the terms of a reform agreement crafted by the U.S. Justice Department. City officials claim that the changes are unaffordable; the Justice Department has filed suit.
It's an odd collection of legal activity. That's why The Fix turned to Paul Butler, a professor of law at Georgetown University and former federal prosecutor who is currently writing a book on race, policing and civil rights. "Chokehold: Policing Black Men" will be published in January 2017.
THE FIX: When you first learned that Cleveland was suing the family of Tamir Rice for his ambulance bill, a Chicago officer who shot and killed two people is suing the estates of the victims, and Ferguson had essentially told the Justice Department that it could not afford to lawfully police that city and thereby, it seems, invited a Justice Department suit, what came to mind?
BUTLER: These cases are all about race or, more specifically, white supremacy. They are part of a familiar backlash against African Americans who dare seek equal justice under the law.
Cleveland acted callously, which is the way poor people of color get treated by the government all the time. Look at how Michigan officials allowed the residents of Flint to drink poisoned water – water the officials wouldn’t even drink themselves.
The Chicago cop is using the court system to have a temper tantrum. Legally, he has no case. Sometimes people use the court system to tell their side of the story. The role of an effective lawyer includes advising a client when a lawsuit is not in his best interest. Officer [Robert] Rialmo’s lawyer failed him in this regard.
Ferguson is broke in part because the city leaders, who are mainly white, were forced to stop using the mainly African American residents as an ATM. The city was issuing fines to black folks for things like “walking in the roadway” and “high grass and weeds” and then using that revenue to fund city services, like the police. It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.
THE FIX: Have your thoughts on the three cases changed since?
BUTLER: Sometimes, the scandal is what the law actually allows. In Cleveland, it’s perfectly legal to charge poor people for ambulance rides. The law also permits much of what the Justice Department is complaining about in Ferguson: Arresting people for petty offenses, and allowing the police great latitude in using force.
Remember, at the same time that the [U.S. Justice Department] accused the Ferguson police of discriminating against African Americans and using excessive force against them, they also found that Darren Wilson, a white cop, did not violate federal law when he killed Michael Brown, an unarmed African American.
The conservatives on the Supreme Court have made race discrimination very difficult to prove, even when everybody knows it is happening. So the city of Ferguson might actually have a case.
THE FIX: What might the three parties at the center of these cases -- the city of Cleveland, the Chicago police officer and the City of Ferguson -- be trying to accomplish?
BUTLER: Cleveland is just trying to get paid – any way it can. A child has been shot dead by the police. The city then demands $10 per mile for the ambulance ride and $450 for “advanced life support.” Does not one city official say, “Hold up. Is this right?” Not until the city’s cold-heartedness becomes national news. Again. It’s the parts of the bill that say “Due by 03/11/2016” and “Detach along line and return stub with your payment. Thank you.” that really express the banality of this evil. Tamir Rice’s family has been treated this way for generations.
Ferguson is also trying to save money. It costs too much to police its citizens fairly, so it’s attempting to get the court to lower the standard to something that’s good enough for black people.
The Chicago cop is trying to salvage his reputation, but his lawsuit confirms why his reputation is damaged in the first place.
I was born and raised in an African American neighborhood in Chicago, and the police were notorious. My mom spanked me once for talking back to cops. She said they could have killed me, because that’s what they did to black boys who challenged their authority.
THE FIX: Have you ever seen cases like these before?
BUTLER: In 2009, Ferguson police beat up a man named Henry Davis and then they charged him with four counts of destruction of property for bleeding on their uniforms. In a broader sense, these cases remind me of Bill Cosby suing his accusers for defamation.
THE FIX: Are there any legal prohibitions, that you are aware of, barring these cities or this individual police officer from taking these legal actions? Individual citizens cannot always sue their government for perceived wrongs. Anything in the law that might create similar limits for the plaintiffs in these cases?
BUTLER: Unfortunately, common sense and decency are not required by the law. Anyone can file a lawsuit, but a judge can summarily dismiss a complaint, which is exactly what the judge should do with the Chicago cop’s case.
In general, however, the law is not especially friendly to poor people. It’s easier, for example, for Flint to go after people who don’t pay their water bill than for Flint residents to sue government officials for giving them poisoned water.
And low-income folks don’t have nearly as many protections against lawsuits as do the police. Often, they can’t afford lawyers to defend them when they get sued.
THE FIX: Do you see these cases as the latest iteration of blame-shifting or victim smearing?
BUTLER: Americans love to blame poor black people for being poor and black. Even President Obama, who I greatly admire, went to Morehouse College, the prestigious college for African-American men, and said “No more excuses … nobody cares how much discrimination you suffered.”
Rather than address the structural conditions that creates state violence, like the policing in Ferguson and Chicago, we criticize young black men for wearing sagging jeans. It’s easier to tell them to pull up their pants than to address white supremacy.
THE FIX: Do you read public comments made by media and political figures which amount to “Well, police brutality is not black America’s real problem, black-on-black crime is,” in much the same way?
BUTLER: Of course [the two issues are] different. One is official violence by government employees; the other is a consequence of many systemic and complex problems: racism, segregation, poverty, the availability of guns and horrendous policing. And when black people commit crimes against other black people, they are usually prosecuted. When cops commit crimes against black people, they are usually not prosecuted. That’s the concern.
THE FIX: Is there anything we haven’t asked about this trio of cases that might be important for people to know or understand?
BUTLER: In a weird way, these cases may have been inspired by the civil rights movement. We mythologize what the law can do on race issues, mainly because the civil rights movement seems like a success story. And it focused on the law -- winning Supreme Court cases and getting Congress to pass new laws.
I’m not sure that celebratory view of the law and race is accurate. If we think about the central stain in U.S. democracy, slavery, it was not “law” that ended that so much as violence -- the bloodiest war in our history.
Now there are laws against segregation and discrimination, but they don’t seem to impact the life experiences of African Americans in places like Ferguson. Maybe the law doesn’t deserve the confidence many people place in it to fix things, especially when it comes to race.