Allen: Consider racism in criminal justice system holistically

Kenny Allen, Op-Ed Contributor

In 2015, Lakeith Smith, A’Donte Washington and three others committed a burglary in Alabama. When police arrived at the home they had broken into, the two groups began to exchange gunfire. Washington died in the shootout from a bullet fired by the police. Although court proceedings indicate that an officer shot and killed Washington, Smith has been sentenced to 30 years in prison for the murder of his friend, on top of the already 35-year sentence for armed burglary. Alabama’s accomplice law — which makes it possible to charge someone with murder if a death occurs while they are committing a felony — allowed this to happen.

Washington was just one of at least 984 people killed by the police in 2015, which is part of a years-long trend of roughly 1,000 people dying at the hands of police yearly. Research shows that black men are nearly three times more likely than white men to fall victim to this violence, making the continued murder of black men at the hands of police a distinctly racial issue.

But what happens after those murders?

Between 2005 and 2017, just 80 officers were arrested for murder or manslaughter, and 28 of them were convicted. As all of the high profile instances of innocent black men being murdered by the police demonstrate, a black man’s life doesn’t have enough value to send a police officer to jail.

This is what makes Smith’s case so egregious. When a police officer fatally fires a gun at a young black man, there are often a dozen reasons retroactively provided for why it is legal. But once there is a way to legally pin this murder on another young black man, the law punishes as hard as it can. The officer’s use of deadly force was even deemed justifiable, yet Smith will spend 30 years in jail for it.

Compare Smith’s punishment to the one given to Michael Slager, the police officer who shot an unarmed Walter Scott eight times in the back as Scott ran away from him. Slager later claimed that he felt “total fear” during the incident. After shooting and killing a man in cold blood and then lying about it, Slager will spend just 20 years in jail — much less than Smith, who never killed anyone. These two cases illustrate that, in the eyes of the law, the crime committed is not as relevant as the person who will be sent to jail for it. The lives of black men aren’t valued, and the legal system — from police officers to prosecutors — generally has no issue putting us in cells or graveyards.

America is a country where black men have always been understood as threats. We are treated as such when we try to get into our own homes or drive with our families, long before we’re even considered men. That’s the explanation that I’ve arrived at for most examples of police brutality I’ve seen. Police officers see black men in tense situations, and it is easy for them to assume the worst. For instance, in this video showing the immediate aftermath of the shooting of Philando Castile, it is easy to see that the officer who murdered Castile was terrified of the notion of an armed black man. It didn’t matter how safely and calmly Castile warned this officer about his legally obtained firearm and license; the idea that a black man with a gun was in front of him made the officer instantly panic, turning the situation fatal.

The murder for which Smith is being charged took place in 2015, and he was given 30 years in jail for it in 2018. Legal processes like this are slow and deliberate, unlike the high-profile police killings that happen in seconds. The prosecutors involved in this case didn’t ruin Smith’s life because they feared for their own lives. They didn’t mistake his phone for a gun. There was no moment of panic. They thought long and hard about how they would effectively end this young man’s life, and they were able to do it successfully.

Though most of the media’s focus on the mistreatment of black men centers on moments of intense police violence, we often don’t look at the violence inflicted at later points in the criminal justice system. We’ve seen headlines about the lives of black men being taken away by police, but we don’t see many headlines about men like Smith, who have their lives taken away by prosecutors.

Kenny Allen is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.