Mark O'Mara: Everyone benefits from a society that values equality and justice
Disadvantages minorities face no more clear than within criminal justice system, he says
Editor’s Note: Mark O’Mara is a CNN legal analyst and a criminal defense attorney. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
CNN and the Kaiser Family Foundation released the results of a poll called “Race and Reality in America.” At first blush, I feared it was just another broad acknowledgment that America has a race problem – without a solution. As I drilled down, however, I found something tangible we can do to start making a change: put body cameras on every cop.
More on that in a moment.
First, I have to call attention to what I think is the most compelling part of this survey. It reports “most white people say that race has been an advantage in their life,” but it also reports that “two-thirds of whites deny whites have benefited from discrimination.” In any other aspect of life – certainly in an competitive arena, such as sports, business, or politics – if someone has a disadvantage, someone else, by definition, has an advantage.
As we work toward solutions to our race problems, one difficult acknowledgment is the blind spot many whites have: It is difficult for whites to have buy-in – psychologically, societally or morally – when they don’t have a personal stake in an anticipated positive outcome from these solutions. From a purely primitive, survival mentality, people have resistance to giving up what they have, whether it is the caveman’s fresh kill or the advantage of getting the job over someone else.
But that is the primitive survival mentality. From a broader perspective, everyone benefits from a society that values equality and justice.
I think this cognitive dissonance in many whites stems from the fact that white people don’t frequently face racial discrimination. If you’re white in America, and you don’t have a problem with race, then race problems don’t frequently find you. But if you’re a minority – and especially if you’re black – the Kaiser survey reminds us that you are race aware all the time.
In no arena is the disadvantage of minorities more clear – and more devastating – than within our criminal justice system. I represent young men whom I’m confident would not have been arrested if they weren’t black. I represent young men whom I’m confident would not have been shot by cops if they weren’t black. And then there are the families who have lost sons and brothers to police brutality – families, who in their grief, have experienced the worst that discrimination can bring.
The study does tell us that on this point – racial bias in the criminal justice system – whites and minorities are closer together. The majority of whites, blacks and Hispanics, according the the Kaiser study, agree that “anger over treatment by police and the desire to be treated fairly are major reasons for recent protests.”
And, according to the report, “large majorities of Hispanics, whites and blacks say that whether an incident in which an unarmed African American is harmed or killed by police is videotaped plays a major role in whether or not the officer is charged with a crime.”
Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke has only just now, more than 400 days after the killing of black teen Laquan McDonald, been charged with murder in his death. The announcement of the charges came just before the release of a video showing McDonald being shot multiple times – 16 shots were fired in just 15 seconds. It’s hard for anyone to disagree that the video was key.
If this is the point on which “large majorities” from every race can agree – that video can hold law enforcement officers accountable for incidents of racial injustice – then let’s start there.
I don’t think there has been a significant increase in the number of unarmed young black men shot by cops in recent years, but I know we’ve seen it more. We’ve seen it because of the proliferation of dashboard cameras, body cameras and citizen cell phone cameras. And each time we see it, when we watch the horrifying news reports, we are forced to come face to face with the ugly injustice of it all – regardless of our own race.
Social media has proved instrumental in delivering stories of racial injustice, and it’s been critical for reaching an otherwise unaffected white audience. When people who feel personally affronted by racial disparity voice their outrage, they invite their friends to share in the outrage. It’s a constant reminder that people cannot passively gloss over impersonal socioeconomic statistics, hoping they won’t be touched by the injustice.
Put body cameras on every cop. I know there are concerns about cost, data storage and privacy. But these are surmountable problems as demonstrated by the successful adoption by law enforcement agencies, big and small, all around the country.
Communities will be able to see when cops are right and when they are wrong. To be clear, I think the vast majority of cops are good people who don’t need a body camera to have them do the right thing. But in this day of such distrust between the black community and law enforcement, this is a concrete step we can take to minimize the now systemic lack of faith afforded to our officers as they explain their behavior. Besides, I believe that all people, cops and civilians, act better when they know they are on camera.
If cameras hold cops accountable for unjustified actions against minorities, and if cameras force whites to acknowledge racial injustice, then the benefit is obvious. I believe, in time, there will be fewer unjustified shootings, fewer acts of brutality, and ultimately, fewer unjustified arrests. Cameras can make real, positive changes in the criminal justice system – and reconciling racial inequities in the justice system is an important step in ending racism in the American society at large.
Next year will be known for change in the criminal justice system. There are too many catalysts, too much energy and too pointed a focus for there not to be. The question is will it get better – with improved relations between blacks and law enforcement and with a realistic acknowledgment of the systemwide disparities and actions towards change – or will it get worse?
Regardless, it is increasingly clear that we can no longer stay static and that just talking about fixing things isn’t enough.