The video of the firing squad killing of Milton Hall has now gone viral. The video is unusually graphic, but there is nothing qualitatively new about what happened to Mr. Hall.
Consider only some of the long line of African/African-descended victims of this type of police violence:
- Michael Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed pedestrian killed in 2014 on a Ferguson, Missouri street;
- Eric Garner, killed by a police choke hold in New York 2014;
- Kimani Gray, a 16-year-old shot multiple times in New York 2013;
- Kendrec McDade, a 19-year-old shot in Pasadena, California 2012;
- Timothy Russell, killed when police fired 137 bullets into his car in Cleveland, Ohio 2012;
- Timothy Stansbury, Jr., shot in a stairwell in Brooklyn, New York 2004;
- Sean Bell, killed when police fired 50 bullets into his car in Queens, New York 2006; and
- Amadou Diallo, shot to death at the entrance to his New York residence 1999.
The ACLU of Michigan was not looking to shock the public or sensationalize a single case when it produced the video and presented it as part of testimony before the Organization of American States’ human rights commission.
Rather, the ACLU is concerned that against the backdrop of an undeniable pattern of police violence of this kind, the federal government has chosen to look the other way. When announcing its decision not to prosecute Mr. Hall’s killers, the Justice Department said:
“…the evidence in this case is insufficient to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the [Saginaw Police Department] officers willfully shot Hall for an unlawful purpose, rather than for their stated purpose of preventing Hall from harming [Saginaw Police Department] staff. Even if the officers were mistaken in their assessment of the threat posed by Hall, this would not establish that the officers acted willfully, or with an unlawful intent, when using deadly force against Hall.”
For some members of the public, it is necessary to see the graphic detail of the video in order to fully appreciate that the Justice Department’s evaluation of the case is far removed from reality.
The implications of that evaluation are that if the Justice Department believes convictions are not possible with contemporaneous, damning video evidence, then it is likely that federal officials also believe that no police officer anywhere can be successfully prosecuted for a killing. This is unacceptable.
In the days to come, we must not allow the Milton Hall video to become mere morbid internet entertainment.
It must instead inspire all who care about the most basic human rights to demand higher and better service from the Justice Department and others responsible for holding law enforcement officers accountable for their actions.
By Mark P. Fancher, Racial Justice Project Staff Attorney