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A Step Toward Justice: Facing Race and Fear in the Criminal Justice System

St. Louis Police Cruiser
Wikimedia Commons

A Step Toward Justice: Facing Race and Fear in the Criminal Justice System

The acquittal of Jason Stockley, a White former St. Louis police officer, for shooting and killing Anthony Smith — who was Black — served as yet another grim reminder of the elusive nature of justice in America. The facts generally fit an all-too-familiar pattern. A Black man, woman, or child’s life is interrupted by an encounter with a police officer borne out of that officer’s suspicion. The encounter turns into a death sentence for the officer’s target. The suspect-turned-victim’s death is followed by calls for justice from a community that has long been over-policed and under-resourced. The criminal justice system — which we task with adjudicating these fatal transgressions — finds a way to obscure reality and ignore the facts. In many cases, the story concludes as it did for Stockley: with the victim’s race and status weaponized, an officer claiming they feared for their life because of it, and an exoneration by trial. Sometimes it ends without any charges being filed at all. A conviction is exceedingly rare. Most of the time, the system holds no one accountable. The community cries out in protest, only to have their voices suppressed through violence, force, and intimidation at the hands of the state. In St. Louis, following Stockley’s acquittal, that meant police chanting “whose streets, our streets” while arresting those who challenged state violence

None of this is surprising if you have been paying any attention to the institution that we collectively look to for accountability. Fairness, justice, and equality are anathema to it. In the criminal justice system, Black lives do not matter. That is not hyperbole, but fact. Race and inequality largely define who is suspected, detained, arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced. In 2014, three years after Mr. Smith’s death, then-Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown during a routine encounter on a suburban St. Louis street. That same year, nearly 1600 police departments arrested Black people at rates more skewed than those in Ferguson. In many cities, race is outcome determinative: a study of prosecution data in Manhattan from 2010 and 2011 revealed that Black defendants were 27 percent more likely than White defendants to receive jail or prison time for misdemeanor drug offenses. Nationwide, Black defendants are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 5 times that of their White defendant counterparts. One can go to any criminal courthouse or jailhouse in America and see these statistics come to life. Whether you observe the lines of those waiting to enter courthouses nationwide, or those working in the fields at plantation prisons like Louisiana State Penitentiary, the numbers match the racial dynamics.

The intersection of data, experience, and reality leads to a conclusion that unfortunately raises more questions than answers. First, we must face the harsh truth that we cannot rely on the criminal justice system to end or even curtail the violence visited by law enforcement on communities of color. Indeed, the system seems to encourage the type of police violence often deployed against Black and Brown communities. The law grants officers broad discretion to use lethal force when they feel threatened. Prosecutors, who must work with police to fulfill their duties, are understandably disinclined to lump those they are usually allied with into the same class as the so-called criminals they ordinarily prosecute. And if a case gets as far as a trial, judges and juries, for a host of reasons, have a hard time convicting the police. Often the officer on trial gets the benefit of the doubt in a way that would be unthinkable for a person of color accused of a crime. In Stockley’s case, the judge excused the officer’s statement of intent to his partner — “we’re killing this [expletive]” — during the high speed chase that preceded the shooting. He also accepted as true testimony that a gun was found in the victim’s car — despite the fact that the only DNA recovered from that gun belonged to a police officer: Stockley. The judge bolstered that belief with his own biases about race, place, and crime, explaining that “an urban heroin dealer not in possession of a firearm would be an anomaly.”

These judgments, combined with the institutional barriers to justice, speak volumes. As civil rights and racial justice advocate Bryan Stevenson explains, America’s criminal justice apparatus rests on “America’s history of racial injustice” and is imbued with a racialized presumption of guilt flowing from that history. A system infected by racial bias and informed by a malignant indifference to Black life is an unlikely conduit to justice for the victims of police violence and their families.

That does not mean that we should all give up the struggle to hold law enforcement accountable, or abandon efforts to do so through the courts. After all, the criminal law is supposed to reflect societal norms, and society should not and cannot countenance homicides or other abuses that are committed by state actors, public servants, or anyone else, and informed by racialized fear. Without question, there are an abundance of good people doing the work necessary to turn that ideal into a reality. But the shortcomings of the system should force us to direct more of our energy elsewhere, long before a tragic death drives us to seek justice in an unjust institution.

So where should we begin? By challenging and disrupting the pernicious, false connections between race and criminality that were baked into our collective subconscious at America’s founding and continue to inform the fear-laden stereotypes of today. These biases infect all of our judgments, no matter our race. They are the product of centuries of chattel slavery, segregation, and discrimination. They were developed to prop up systems of oppression. And they are deadly. The simple fact is that fear, combined with stereotypes, can turn being Black and driving with a missing license plate, or shopping in a store, or selling loose cigarettes, or standing next to your broken down car, or fleeing arrest into a fatal police encounter.

To be clear, a wholesale recognition of the far flung effects of racialized fear on the choices made by law enforcement is just the first step in addressing a longstanding institutional problem — much like the way an addict must acknowledge that they have a problem before they can take to treatment. Jason Stockley — and so many like him — should be wrestling with that transformative fear long before they decide to become a police officer, don a uniform, and strap on a gun. Far too often, it seems, they are not. Until that changes, we can simply expect more of what the criminal justice system already dispenses in disproportionate doses: injustice.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Fair Punishment Project.

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