The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion America has always known about systemic police brutality. Will we finally do something about it?

A “Black Lives Matter” mural painted in Tulsa on June 19.
A “Black Lives Matter” mural painted in Tulsa on June 19. (Lawrence Bryant/Reuters)
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My namesake, Rodney, was pulled over by police after a high-speed chase. The cops beat Rodney King with their nightsticks more than 50 times. The brutal event on March 3, 1991, in Los Angeles was caught on amateur videotape. After four policemen were acquitted, the City of Angels went up in flames.

Decades earlier, in the summer of 1967, civil disorder erupted in Newark, Detroit and more than 100 communities across the country, some of it brought on and inflamed by police actions.

So here we are in 2020, confronted with the death in Atlanta of an unarmed black man, Rayshard Brooks, when confronted by white police officer Garrett Rolfe . . . and the killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd, an unarmed black man whose neck was pinned on the ground by a white officer’s knee . . . and the shooting death in Louisville of Breonna Taylor, a black woman and aspiring nurse shot eight times in her own home by white police officers serving a no-knock warrant . . . and the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a black jogger chased down and shot by white men in Glynn County, Ga.

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These killings come on the heels of the 2012 Sanford, Fla., killing of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer; the 2014 Cleveland killing of Tamir Rice, a black 12-year-old who was playing in a park when he was shot by a white police officer; the 2015 North Charleston, S.C., killing of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man shot in the back by a white officer while fleeing a traffic stop; and the 2015 Cincinnati killing of Samuel DuBose, an unarmed black man shot by a white University of Cincinnati police officer after being pulled over for a missing license plate.

The Cincinnati slaying occurred nine months after a white Chicago officer shot and killed Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old black youth. When it was finally made public, police dashcam video footage showed that McDonald was moving away when the officer began firing.

Tucked into this far-from-comprehensive list is Michael Brown, an unarmed teen shot to death in 2014 by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

Lest we forget, there’s Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died in 2015 of a spinal cord injury sustained in a Baltimore police van.

The District also has a place in this pattern. The September 2016 police killing of Terrence Sterling, an unarmed black man, occurred on our turf.

I wrote two columns urging a swift investigation, for all the good they did. The D.C. police moved with lightning speed to get their spin out.

Within hours of Sterling’s death, police issued a news release essentially placing the blame on Sterling.

The department’s Sept. 11, 2016, statement said Sterling had been driving “recklessly” and that “when the officer was exiting the passenger side of his marked police cruiser to stop the driver, the motorcyclist intentionally drove into the passenger door and the officer fired his weapon.” Not true.

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But that didn’t stop federal prosecutors from washing their hands of the case — 11 months later — on grounds of insufficient evidence to file criminal charges against Officer Brian Trainer, who put one bullet in Sterling’s neck and another in his back.

Sterling’s family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit, and the department conducted an internal review. The police report concluded that Trainer’s decision to shoot “was not in defense of his life, nor was it in defense of the lives of others.” Trainer was fired, and the District also reached a $3.5 million settlement with Sterling’s family — the highest ever in a fatal shooting by an on-duty city officer.

Now, as with the summer 1967 disorder, Rodney King and present-day shootings and brutality involving unarmed black people, come calls for police reforms.

As if America doesn’t know what’s what.

Excerpts from the 1947 report “To Secure These Rights” produced by Harry Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights:

“We must also report more widespread and varied forms of official misconduct. These include violent physical attacks by police officers on members of minority groups.

“Insensitive to the necessary limits of police authority, untrained officers frequently overstep the bounds of their proper duties. At times this appears in unwarranted arrests . . . and abuse of the search and seizure power.

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“There are other cases . . . of officers who seem to be ‘trigger-happy.’ In a number of instances, Negroes have been shot, supposedly in self-defense, under circumstances indicating, at best, unsatisfactory police work . . . and, at worst, a callous willingness to kill.

“The total picture . . . is, in the opinion of this Committee, a serious reflection on American justice.”

That presidential report was published nearly 75 years ago. America knows, and has always known, about the problem.

In response to the culture of systemic police brutality, President Trump has just issued a slate of executive actions that are as weak as water. Senate Republicans have produced a plan that is as mild as skim milk. And House Democrats are teeing up a reform package that is as strong as espresso, flavored with sentiments of “Black Lives Matter.”

Which way, America?

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