After six days of protests that followed the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a police officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, the police department identified Brown’s killer. Darren Wilson, a six-year veteran of the force, encountered the teen after being alerted to a robbery at a convenience store, the police department said Friday. Initially, the police in Ferguson resisted disclosing Wilson’s name because they said they were concerned for his safety.
For civil rights advocates, the disclosure is a first step in following through on President Barack Obama’s call Thursday for an “open and transparent” investigation into the shooting of Brown, 18. But for family members of victims of police violence, such appeals for transparency too often ring hollow.
Constance Malcolm says she has been fighting for justice for her son Ramarley Graham since the Bronx teenager was killed by a plainclothes New York police officer in February 2012. Graham, like Brown, was African-American and was unarmed when he was shot.
“The past two and a half years have just been hard on me, period,” Malcolm said in a phone interview. “I’ve been sitting here, waiting for some accountability for my son, and I haven’t gotten that.”
Graham was walking with friends when two police officers followed him home, entering without a warrant, and shot him in front of his grandmother and 6-year-old brother. Richard Haste, the officer who fired the shot, said he heard colleagues say over a police radio that Graham had a gun.
Although Haste was indicted on two counts of manslaughter in a Bronx criminal court that June, the charges were later dropped over prosecutors’ failure to follow jury procedure. The Department of Justice promised to review Graham’s death, but one year after the agency announced the possible investigation, his parents say they have heard nothing.
“Aug. 8 made it one year since they were supposed to look into the case, and we haven’t heard anything,” Malcolm said. “Our lawyers have contacted them, they’ve been calling, and we still haven’t gotten a response.”
Brown and Graham are just two people on a long list of victims of police violence — the overwhelming majority of whom are young men of color. According to a 2012 Malcolm X Grassroots Movement report, every 28 hours a black man is killed by a police officer, private security agent or vigilante in the United States. In the month of August alone, there have been four police killings of unarmed black men: Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York; John Crawford in Beavercreek, Ohio; Brown; and most recently, Ezell Ford in Los Angeles.
Although many of these alleged crimes are investigated, through internal or federal investigations, the probes rarely result in charges. The most common punishment, according to civil rights advocates, is being placed on administrative duty.
“In these instances where there has been police brutality, we have rarely seen accountability because the reality is that the local justice system often treats these officers with completely different standards than civilians,” said Priscilla Gonzalez, director of organizing with Communities United for Police Reform, an advocacy group.
She and other advocates said that the case of Garner, who suffocated to death in July after being placed in a chokehold by a police officer, demonstrates this double standard. A medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, but there have been no arrests, and a grand jury has not been convened. Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who grabbed Garner, was stripped of his badge and placed on desk duty. (The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment on Garner’s case as of the time of publication this article).
“Leadership in local government, such as the mayors of New York City, have not demonstrated the political will to make sure that officers are held accountable by whatever internal systems exist,” Gonzalez said.
Although the FBI opened an investigation into the Brown case on Monday, there is no guarantee that it will lead to any accountability, as happened with Graham.
Just over a year after Graham was killed, 16-year-old Kimani Gray was fatally shot by a plainclothes NYPD officer in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Gray was walking home from a birthday party when he was shot seven times, after, as police officers put it, suspiciously adjusting his waistband. Although the police say he was holding a .38 caliber handgun, no such gun was found at the scene of the crime.
As in Brown’s death, Gray’s killing sparked days of unrest, with similar scenes of protesters taking to the streets and brutal police crackdowns. A few months later, the NYPD Muslim Officers Society selected Sgt. Mourad Mourad, the officer who killed Gray, to be honored as Cop of the Year for his “active police work,” even though he was still under investigation. Because of community pressure, Mourad declined the award and did not attend the event.
On July 29, of this year, a little more than one week before Brown was killed, the NYPD closed its investigation of Mourad and his partner, Jovaniel Cordova. Federal prosecutors informed the Gray family’s lawyers that charges would not be brought against the officers and that the case would not be going before a grand jury. Like Haste before him, Mourad walked free.
Officer Sean Williams and Sgt. David Darkow, the officers who shot Crawford after he refused to put down an airsoft rifle in a Walmart, are currently on administrative leave, but Beavercreek Police Chief Dennis Evers mentioned that he supports the “quick response” of the officers. The Los Angeles police officer who killed Ford has not been named by the media.
Malcolm has taken the quest for justice into her own hands. On Aug. 8, the first anniversary since the opening of the investigation into Graham’s death and, coincidentally, the day before Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, she began to gather signatures for a petition to pressure the Department of Justice to follow through on its investigation into Graham’s death and assemble a grand jury to indict Haste. She plans to personally deliver the petition to the Department of Justice on Aug. 20.
“Until one of these officers that commits a crime and goes to jail for that crime, it is going to continue,” Malcolm says. “How many people after Ramarley have we seen? There is no accountability for these officers. They get away with murder every day.”
Editor's note: This version of the story corrects the characterization of the Department of Justice's review of Ramarley Graham's death and the spelling of Priscilla Gonzalez's name.