Khalil Gibran Muhammad: Why police accountability remains out of reach

Federal prosecutors' failure to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner in 2014 has brought renewed attention to police accountability. Prosecutors ruled July 16 that the viral video of the seven-second chokehold and Garner's 11 pleas of "I can't breathe" were insufficient evidence of Pantaleo's willful intent to deny Garner his civil rights. Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, has demanded accountability: "I want those officers fired, the ones who were on the scene that day when they murdered my son." But will she get it?

While Pantaleo may still be dismissed from the New York Police Department in the coming weeks, the bigger question is whether justice and accountability can be found in the legal and administrative decisions of prosecutors and police.

The answer to this question, at least for now, is no.

Garner's death, like the deaths of many others at the hands of police, was not a tragic accident. Instead, it was a reflection of how we, as a nation, have chosen to protect white lives - and increasingly "blue" ones - at the expense of black ones. The laws allowing maximum discretion to use force are working as they were intended, and they reflect decades of rejecting alternative policy visions of policing that would have done far more to achieve racial justice.

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Chicago race riot, which led to the first blue-ribbon commission on racialized policing in the United States. In the summer of 1919, white beachgoers stoned to death Eugene Williams, a 17-year-old boy swimming in Lake Michigan, because he mistakenly crossed an aqueous color line. Although black witnesses sought police assistance and immediately identified the assailant, no arrest was made for his killing. It seemed Williams' life did not matter.

Black protesters expressed outrage. Whites struck back with violence. For almost a week, starting July 27, 1919, white mobs attacked black pedestrians and homeowners, while blacks fought back. Thirty-eight people were killed, mostly African Americans, and 537 were injured, of whom 342 were black. Despite the overwhelming black casualties, police and prosecutors arrested and indicted twice as many African Americans.

In the aftermath, the Chicago Commission on Race Relations issued its report. The commission found indisputable evidence of systemic racial profiling, abuse and corruption. It noted officers regularly "shut their eyes to offenses committed by white men while they were very vigorous in getting all the colored men they could." Testimony, the commission wrote, "is practically unanimous that Negroes are much more liable to arrest than whites."

Surprisingly, a century ago, officials blamed much of the problem on implicit bias. "We recognize that these practices and tendencies are," they explained, "in a large degree the unconscious results of traditional race prejudice." They recommended all criminal justice agencies must "deal fairly (and without discrimination) with all persons charged with crime."

Undoubtedly, given the sharp partisan divisions over policing, some defenders of today's status quo will argue what happened a hundred years ago is irrelevant. Except what happened in Chicago kept happening there, and elsewhere, over and over again. In 1935, Harlem became a conflict zone when pitched battles were waged between a besieged black community and the New York Police Department.

Soon after the Harlem riot, another report was issued and laid much of the blame on racist policing. "The police of Harlem show too little regard for human rights and constantly violate" blacks' "rights as citizens," wrote lead investigator Franklin Frazier, a black sociologist trained in Chicago. He recommended not only punishing abusive police, but also added the police should win the "confidence" of Harlem's residents and "prove themselves guardians of the rights and safety of the community rather than its enemies and oppressors."

Fiorello LaGuardia, New York City's famed liberal mayor, buried the report and took no further action.

More than 30 years later, after the 1960s uprisings, the Kerner Commission reached similar conclusions, as did the Chicago and Harlem reports, and made similar recommendations. They called for better treatment of black citizens, more effective police protection, the establishment of independent citizen review boards and an end to "aggressive patrol."

When Kenneth Clark, whose research informed the Brown v. Board of Education decision, testified before the Kerner Commission, he saw history repeating itself. "I read the report of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee of the Harlem riot of 1935, the report of the investigating committee of the Harlem riot of 1943, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot [of 1965]," he wrote, doubting that yet another report would make any difference. "I must again in candor say to you members of the Commission - it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland with the same moving picture reshown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction."

Over the past 50 years, Clark's "moving picture" of police brutality and corruption investigations is still being shown, from New York's Mollen Commission (1994) to the Los Angeles Rampart investigation (2000). Federal consent decrees and Justice Department reports continue to document in city after city a "pattern and practice" of unconstitutional policing: Pittsburgh (1997), Cincinnati (2001), Detroit (2003), New Orleans (2010), Seattle (2010), Cleveland (2012), East Haven, Connecticut(2012), New York (2013), Albuquerque, Arizona (2014), Portland, Oregon (2014), Baltimore (2015), Los Angeles (2015), Newark, New Jersey (2015) and Chicago (2017).

Despite the century-long trail of evidence of a systemic policing problem, the most influential police leader today insists there isn't one.

Two years ago, America's top cop, William Bratton, who led six police departments from New York to Los Angeles and back again during his five-decade career, gave a speech at the Heritage Foundation in which he directly repudiated the Kerner Commission findings. "They believed at the time that the causes of crime were racism, were poverty, were police practices in many instances, unemployment, demographics. They thought those were the causes. They were not. They are not. And they never have been." The problem is criminals, he insisted.

Since Bratton's retirement, 32 Blue Lives Matter bills have been proposed in 14 states. In Louisiana and Kentucky, successful bills added police to existing hate crimes laws. These laws falsely equate doing a job, even if at times a dangerous one, with living in one's own skin. But there are no blue lives. Blue is not a shade of humanity. This is a blue backlash.

If police cannot yet police themselves, as the past and present make clear, what is the alternative?

Even before African Americans began insisting on fairness, racial justice and police accountability a century ago, white progressives had already started achieving these goals in white urban America, particularly in poor neighborhoods and immigrant slums. First, they rejected anti-immigrant profiling and rooted out "brutal policemen." Then they treated crime as a poverty problem, prioritizing reform outside the scope of policing. In white communities, from the Progressive Era to the New Deal and beyond, they built a new and improved social and economic infrastructure: better housing, enhanced labor protections and higher-paying jobs.

They did for first- and second-generation Irish and Italian immigrants what black southern migrants wanted in Chicago all along.

"The time has come when the police of this city must be made to realize that the constitutional rights of the commonest citizen cannot be trampled upon with impunity," prominent black attorney Roy Woods said in 1925. "The time has come for a redistribution of justice."

Khalil Gibran Muhammad

Khalil Gibran Muhammad is professor of history, race and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and author of “The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and the Making of Modern Urban America.” This essay is adapted from a second edition published this month.