When an officer improperly uses deadly force, it’s not only controversial, it is also likely to be criminal. And when the victim is a minority, it may be a catalyst for not only a criminal trial but an opportunity for those who feel they have long been oppressed by the judicial system to expect a level of retribution that borders on revenge.
Such was the case in the recent trial of former Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Officer Johannes Mehserle in the killing of Oscar Grant. Mehserle shot Grant in the back during an arrest at an Oakland area transit stop. Mehserle said the shooting was a horrible mistake, that he had intended to deploy his Taser rather than his handgun. A close review of video and related testimony supported Mehserle’s claim.
Mehserle was charged with murder and the trial was moved to Los Angeles because of publicity and civil unrest in the Oakland area. The jury found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter with an added enhancement of knowingly using a gun in the crime.
The verdict produced a conundrum for the judge because the jury’s verdict of guilty on the involuntary manslaughter charge meant that they didn’t believe he intended to kill Grant. But the jury also found Mehserle guilty on the gun enhancement which required that he had used the gun intentionally. The gun enhancement could add ten years to the sentence.
Ultimately, the judge found the jury had erred on the gun finding and sentenced Mehserle to two years for the involuntary manslaughter conviction. Upon announcement of the sentence, demonstrations broke out in both the Los Angeles and Oakland areas. Some chanted, “No justice, no peace.”
Was justice served? The answer depends on your perspective. For those who truly believe that the justice system is too quick to punish those of color and too slow to hold cops responsible, the sentence was another indicator of the inequity of the system. For those who have served in public safety and understand the reality and intensity of a riotous group and uncooperative suspect, the sentence was a reasoned response by an experienced jurist.
When this type of situation exists, it is all too easy to simply dismiss the criticism by saying “they just don’t understand.” Doing this is imprudent because it simply sets us up for a greater problem when future questions arise regarding use of force. Those on the extreme of both sides of this equation – those who believe that cops are always wrong and those who believe that cops are always right – will probably never agree that any situation was properly addressed.
For the vast majority, though, who understand that cops are human beings who sometimes make mistakes and sometimes go bad, a reasoned level of accountability is expected and actually appreciated. When errors are made, we need to make sure that we handle the process professionally and responsibly.
In the case of Officer Mehserle, the system ultimately worked. The result will not bring back Oscar Grant and it won’t ease the burden that Mehserle will carry for the rest of his life. But the verdict and subsequent sentence does provide a degree of societal retribution, a desired outcome of our judicial system.