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September Issue

Vol 31|No 1|September 2020

Out of the darkness

By Jamie McKenzie (about author)

Videos captured by mobile phones have brought cases of police brutality and homicide out into the open in ways that have transformed relationships with law enforcement officers, officials of the justice system and the general public. Justice is often portrayed as a blind goddess, in the sense that it must weigh each case fairly and impartially, but when it comes to police brutality, some might claim that the system can also be blind when recognizing and punishing rogue cops.

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While most police officers are hard-working and decent, the system in some cities has sadly protected the bad cop from consequences. Cameras on phones have dramatically changed that in some cases.

As videos of encounters have gone viral, they have fueled public protests on a massive scale. The slow pace of local investigations was never satisfying, but now justice seems both blind and slow when we see a man shot in the back as Joseph Blake was. Anyone watching that video might reasonably wonder what might possibly justify such a shooting. Resisting arrest would hardly justify seven shots into the back at close range, but a month after the shooting, an investigation of the incident is ongoing with no action taken yet against the officer who is seen by many as having used excessive force. The slow pace of justice is especially hard to accept when citizens have seen damning videos.

Across the nation, citizens are demanding an end to brutality and cover-ups. These demands are fueled by visual evidence of abuse and brutality that once would have been hidden in darkness. The technology has dramatically altered the public's perception of police misconduct and will lead to demands for reform, holding rogue cops more swiftly accountable for wrongdoing.

Alexander Gardner, a photographer working for Matthew Brady, shot dozens of horrific photos of battlefield dead soldiers at Antietam. His collection put a lie to the claims about the glory of battle. Back then there were not many photographers or cameras, but today, thanks to smart phones, almost everybody has a camera capable of capturing incidents between citizens and the police. In addition, many police are equipped with body cams. The change in technology has had far reaching consequences.

Relevance to School Programs

Trust in the courts and our system of justice is a fundamental pillar of our nation's government. Theories are one thing. Realities can be quite different. Students studying history and civics must examine the extent to which the stated values and the true values diverge. Ultimately it is a responsibility of all citizens to argue for true justice, acting wherever possible to eradicate abuses and install systems that are trustworthy.

"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and JUSTICE for all."

Case studies offer one especially worthwhile strategy to engage students in considering these issues.

The teacher provides the class with a list of cases from the past decade (such as Daniel Prude in Rochester, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and Joseph Blake in Kenosha, etc.) where there may have been police misconduct and asks each student or team of students to pick one case to explore the following question:

To what extent was justice served by the way the police department, the courts and the city handled this case? If you could make changes in the investigation and the ultimate consequences, what would you recommend?

In wrestling with these questions, students will come to see the complexity of judging police behaviors during moments of crisis. Hopefully they will develop a strong sense of what is right and what is wrong, ultimately voting as a citizen for systems that provide law and order in partnership with justice, punishing rogue cops and eliminating brutality as much as possible.

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