Opinion

The Great Debate

Never an excuse for shooting unarmed suspects, former police chief says

A police officer points a spotlight at a more vocal and confrontational group of demonstrators during further protests in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown, near FergusonI was the police chief in Kansas City, Missouri, when an unarmed African-American teenager was shot by a cop for a non-violent issue. The result was a peaceful and constructive public dialogue — the opposite of what is happening now in Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old.

I was then the youngest big-city police chief in America, having just arrived from New York City, where I had been a deputy inspector in the New York Police Department during a high-crime period. But I had no real honeymoon in Missouri.

Just a few days after I took charge, on a crystal clear day in 1973, a uniformed officer responded to a daylight break-in of a home. The officer raised his shotgun and fired at a youth running away. He killed Rory Lark, age 15, unarmed and slight, at 115 pounds.

Police officers monitor a group of rowdy demonstrators during further protests in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown near Ferguson, MissouriThe Kansas City Star filled its entire front page with an image of Lark, an angelic school photo of the youngster who looked to be a skinny 10-year-old. If you had a heart, you had to be touched.

If Lark had received any punishment, it would likely have been a week in juvenile hall. As a gesture of sympathy to the black community, I attended his funeral in civilian clothes. The officer was reprimanded and transferred.

New York’s election suggests the waning of identity politics

To most Americans, the results of New York City’s local elections don’t matter much and often shouldn’t. Yes, there are City Hall occupants who manage to command a national stage, notably incumbent Mike Bloomberg, but in the 2013 race there have been no candidates even approaching his stature (or his wealth). The candidate who received the most votes in Tuesday’s primary, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, is unknown outside New York City and until recently not well known inside it.

Yet there is an aspect of the 2013 campaign that might resonate well beyond New York’s five boroughs: voter behavior suggests that the era of identity politics may have ended or at least peaked.

Throughout the modern era, politicians in New York City (and many other places) have seen elections as a competition among voting blocs determined by ethnic and racial identities: African-American, Latino (which until the 1990s in New York City was primarily Puerto Rican), Jewish, white (which can be further broken down into the larger nationalities represented in New York, such as Italian, Irish, etc). Strategic alliances, endorsements, and policy choices could be used to deliver, somewhat reliably, these groups of voters to chosen candidates. As nonwhites became a majority some time in the mid-1980s, and the pool of viable candidates more diverse, most nonwhite voters saw a path of empowerment through supporting one of their own: that is, given a choice, African-American voters would usually vote disproportionately for the African-American candidate, Latino voters for the Latino candidate, and so on. In recent decades, women and LGBT-identified voters also became important self-aware constituencies, although the LGBT vote is difficult to measure and its effects have been seen more on neighborhood races than citywide ones.

Can federal charges be brought against Zimmerman?

Now that a Florida jury has found George Zimmerman not guilty of second degree murder and manslaughter, people across the nation are demanding federal prosecution. But this public debate has been clouded by misinformation about the possibility and scope of federal charges.

President Obama’s powerful comments on Friday helped put this matter in perspective. The state prosecution deserves a strong measure of deference. The federal government must, however, conduct a thorough investigation and undertake the rigorous analysis necessary to ensure that the federal interest in punishing civil rights violations is vindicated to the greatest extent possible.

The public outcry for federal involvement reveals the legitimate passions stirred by the killing of Trayvon Martin and drives home the importance of getting this right. The decision whether to prosecute, however, must be based on the evidence and the law as analyzed by professional civil rights prosecutors in the Justice Department.

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