In an Alice in Wonderland turn of events, the U.S. Department of Justice has concluded that there is insufficient evidence to criminally charge six Saginaw police officers who killed Milton Hall, a black, 49-year-old mentally ill homeless man almost two years ago.
The police reportedly shot 47 bullets at Hall who, at the time was unarmed except for a knife that he held while officers stood a significant distance away. As a civilian, Hall had every right to expect that the police would protect his life, but instead, he was the target of what resembled in many ways a gangland execution.
Hall had a right to expect that he would be protected because the police are always expected ”to serve and protect.” But in this case the only ones who have been protected are the police themselves. First, local prosecutors concluded that prosecution was unwarranted because the officers did not have the requisite criminal intent. If members of the public were somehow able to shrug that one off, the unwillingness of the Justice Department to take action is like a knife in the gut. If citizens can’t trust the federal government to protect them when local officials won’t, then just who can they trust?
It has been suggested that the Justice Department’s findings will have no effect on a pending lawsuit that was filed by Hall’s survivors. But civil claims mean little to communities of color that know intuitively that each time a police officer escapes criminal liability for egregious violence, other officers become emboldened, and more civilians are at risk. Civil damages are not paid by the officers themselves, but are instead drawn from the public coffers. The officers don’t feel the pain in their wallets, and consequently there is little incentive for behavioral reform.
If in this case we give the police the benefit of the doubt, then they may simply have done what they may have been trained to do. That is, after firing the first bullet to not cease firing until ordered to do so. It is a practice that is intended to protect the officers’ safety by leaving nothing to chance. But emptying a gun into the helpless body of a civilian is not only a dumb rule, it is unconscionable.
The Milton Hall killing has forced many civilians and police alike to reflect on the relationship between police and the community. Unfortunately, it appears that more reflection will be required in some quarters before justice can be guaranteed for the other Milton Halls among us.
A year after the Milton Hall killing, the ACLU of Michigan asked the Department of Justice to expand its investigation of the Saginaw Police Department to look at what appeared to be a disturbing "pattern of racial profiling" in the city.
While justice has been delayed another day for Milton Hall and his family, the Department of Justice has another opportunity to address the devastating consequences that racial profiling and biased police practices have in communities of color, including Saginaw.
By Mark Fancher, Racial Justice Project Staff Attorney