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No justice for Oscar Grant or law-abiding peace officers

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POSTED July 9, 2010 2:31 a.m.
It took less than seven hours for a Los Angeles jury to deliver a miscarriage of justice.

In the end the jury comprised of seven whites, three Latinos, an Asian and a juror who declined to state his ethnicity to not only slap Oscar Grant’s family in the face but also that of every law-abiding American as well as peace officers that take their oath to serve and protect to heart.

Finding former Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer Johannes Mehserle guilty simply of involuntary manslaughter means he will serve a minimum – if that – of five years for shooting an unarmed 22-year-old in the back as he lay face down on a BART station platform on New Year’s Day in 2009.

Those who believe somehow that what Mehserle did was “an accident” are mocking the thousands of men and women who put their lives on the line every second of every day in this country serving as peace officers. Officers are held to a higher standard and they accept that. It means extensive training, showing restraint, and being guardians of the law and the public.

How a trained police officer could not tell the difference between a Taser and a gun in the heat of a moment is a terrorizing thought. Mehserle’s act of aggression took place even though video clearly shows Grant wasn’t a physical threat to him or others. What is even more disturbing, though, is how a jury of 12 could reach such a conclusion or, at best, decide it was only worth seven hours of their time to debate the differences between an involuntary manslaughter conviction and that for second degree murder.

Second guessing juries shouldn’t be a national pastime especially since we are not the ones in the box. However, the footage and testimony should have been stark enough that the issue of the price a man under color of authority should pay for taking the life of a clearly unarmed and non-threatening “suspect” should not have taken less time than playing the Super Bowl and all of its pre-game day hype.

A jury of your peers infers a jury of fellow citizens. Jury make-up should be color blind but in a county like Los Angeles with a large black population how did not one black get on the panel? Concerns about jury pool impartiality in Oakland where a third of the residents are black prompted the move from Alameda County to Los Angeles. The court’s definition of impartiality, in this case, was a jury without a single black. Whether that in itself constitutes a bad verdict is debatable. It certainly does raise questions though, about whether there was justice for Oscar Grant.

It is, in the truest sense, “an unsatisfying” verdict much like those back in the 1960s in state courts that prompted the intervention of the federal Department of Justice.

While we need to give law enforcement officers a reasonable benefit of doubt due to the split-second decisions they must make while keeping in mind the law and potentially life threatening situations, there comes a point where actions conducted in either the heat of the moment or wanton disregard for procedures must be treated as criminal.

The 1992 beating of Rodney King by four Los Angeles police officers is an example. Most reasonable people will agree there was a point when the four officers were justified in striking King as he was violently lashing back while resisting arrest. But there came a point where King ceases resisting and they kept beating for a considerable amount of time. It wasn’t law enforcement’s finest hour and the decision to acquit the four ranked right up there in terms of being a travesty.

Those who side with the jury in either the Rodney King or Oscar Grant cases need to ask themselves one basic question: How would they view the world if a loved one was beaten senseless by four armed officers after ceasing to resist or if their son was shot to death as he lay face-down and was not physically resisting arrest?

To simply side with the officers in both cases because they have a tough job and those accused of a crime deserve it is a frightening stance for any American to take. Officers by law are only arresting suspects unless, of course, they are collaring a convicted murderer who escaped from jail.

Police do have a tough job and we should respect that. But just because they carry a badge doesn’t give them a get-out-of-jail-free card.

The one silver lining was the relative calm in Oakland that was not only asked for aggressively by adults but also by young people of all color.

If anything, how most of Oakland has responded so far provides a strong glimmer of hope that the much-maligned East Bay city may one day return to its former status as one of California’s most promising urban centers.
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