Monday, February 15, 2010

Small-town "justice" run amok? Part II

Who knew the news would give me cause the write another post with this headline so soon after the first, but this story in today's New York Times is surely an invitation to do just that. The dateline is Homer, Louisiana, population 3,788, and this story--tragically--also has a racial component. Campbell Robertson's story reports the recent decision by a grand jury not to indict a white police officer who shot and killed a 73-year-old Black man on his front porch. Homer police maintain that the man, Bernard Monroe, was carrying a pistol, but numerous witnesses say he carried only a sports drink bottle. A police officer shot him seven times in the chest, back and side.

Acknowledging a conflict, the district attorney passed the state police report regarding the shooting to the attorney general to take to the grand jury. While more than 60% of Homer residents are Black, the grand jury that considered the matter--all from Homer and the nearby area--included 8 whites and 4 Blacks.

Here's an excerpt that further situates the events in social and racial context:
The outcome jarred a town of 3,400 that, like so many small Southern towns, has been struggling to move past a heritage of racial mistrust. Even among disillusioned black residents, it seemed like a throwback to uglier times.

* * *

Last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of Mr. Monroe’s family against the town and two former police officers, arguing that they had failed “to exercise reasonable care” and “created a volatile situation” in the series of events that led up to the shooting.

From a ruralist perspective, I found interesting the role of lack of anonymity in these events. Here's how it played out: The decedent's son, Shaun Monroe, has a criminal record, but his most recent conviction was 15 years old at the time police shot and killed the elder Monroe. Nevertheless, the police were keeping an eye on Shaun Monroe on the day in question because they believed he was involved in the drug trade. Allegedly based on this information, the police were following Shaun Monroe at the time of shooting, and it appears that when the officers shot the elder Mr. Monroe, they may have thought that the elder Monroe was assisting his son.

Of course, police everywhere presumably keep an eye on known criminals. But Shaun Monroe's most recent conviction was long ago, so why did he draw so much police attention? Further, the town's white police chief acknowledges the use of "preventive policing" tactics that are more often associated with larger cities. This involves stopping "groups of young people walking in these neighborhoods, ask[ing] for identification 'and possibly pat[ting] them down.'”

In small towns where populations tend to be fairly static, there is not only racial profiling, there may be "profiling"--accompanied by differential treatment--of all with criminal records. Such community members may be not only known to police on the basis of those records, but because law enforcement officers tend to be more socially enmeshed with their communities in rural areas and small towns.

In short, small town policing often takes the notion of "usual suspects" to a whole new height. And, that can make it especially difficult for those with criminal records to rehabilitate. In this case, it may have led to even more tragic consequences.

No comments: