Chicago police video of Anjanette Young should shock America. It doesn't shock Chicago.
On February 21, 2019, Anjanette Young came home from her job as a social worker and began undressing for bed. Suddenly she heard the deafening sound of the Chicago police slamming their battering rams on their front door.
For almost 40 minutes, bare and unprotected, confused and now unsafe in her own home, Young repeatedly told officials that they had the wrong home. In fact, the police acted on an unverified tip from a confidential informant that someone at their address was in possession of a gun and drugs. But that person, a 23-year-old with an electronic monitoring device, didn't live there and had no connection with Young. After a lengthy and dehumanizing time for Young, the police apparently realized their mistake. A sergeant apologized and the police went and tried to fix her door on the way out.
But they didn't leave her alone. Chicago police and city officials struggled to suppress the truth about what had happened that night and to cover up the unnecessary violence and trauma they had inflicted on an innocent citizen who was just trying to get on the bed prepare. And they almost succeeded. After Chicago officials learned that CBS was about to air a special using the body camera video (with Young's approval), the city asked a judge to block the video and called for sanctions against Young's attorney. Fortunately, those efforts failed and CBS got the story on. Now Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot is calling for accountability. But would she have done that if her legal team or cops had managed to bury the facts?
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Here's the sad reality: Chicagoans aren't surprised. For those of us who work as defense attorneys in the criminal justice system, what happened to Anjanette Young that night is the norm. What is unusual, however, is the fact that there is indeed accountability in this case, largely due to the presence of body camera videos.
But we also need to acknowledge how Young's innocence and class are linked to their credibility as victims. Change any of these factors - if they had the right house, if the victim wasn't a professional, if they were using or dealing in drugs - and maybe we'd all be less concerned about their trauma. Their experience would be consistent with the logic that assumes that black women should be treated with suspicion. And most likely, their experience would never be made known to the public.
Imagine for a minute that there were no body cameras. How far would this story go? The police can decide when to turn their cameras on or off, and while there are police guidelines and state laws prohibiting officers from doing so, few officers get into trouble because they have hidden or obscured the recordings. With 13 years of experience, lawyers often struggle to gain access to material evidence that their clients are entitled to in preparation for the trial.
In Young's case, her legal team received additional body-worn camera footage nearly two years after the incident, only after extensive coverage and public consumption of Young's attack. Cameras are still not mandatory for all Chicago Police Department law enforcement officers interacting with the public. Perimeter surveillance units routinely monitor neighborhoods without the need to wear body-worn cameras. This is extremely problematic as it is routine for an individual to speak against that of an official.
In a criminal case, the police are still given every benefit of the doubt. Starting with the arrest, the criminal justice system tries to obtain a confession of guilt. And this pressure increases the longer you are in the system. People experience a seemingly endless trial - whether detained before the trial, restricted to electronic surveillance at home, or released. An open criminal complaint is a burden that leads to job loss and exceptional stress and tension.
In addition to this coercive atmosphere, prosecutors withhold evidence while people face mandatory minimum sentences and other harsh penalties in court. As a result, the majority of people plead guilty (95 percent of convictions nationwide), guilty or innocent, whether or not they are victims of police misconduct. The result? Criminal records as well as the isolation of police misconduct. Such confessions of guilt prevent public defenders from interrogating officials and bringing most civil rights claims. In short, the dynamics of the legal process are preventing the general public from knowing the truth. it perpetuates a system of injustice.
This is the normal course of criminal justice. Victims and accused are dehumanized, and many of them are moved through the system in complete silence. The state decides how their stories are told and what forms of accountability are fair. Neither the victims nor the accused focus on healing or transformative rehabilitation processes. This doesn't make us safer or healthier. In fact, it undermines the very stated goals of criminal law
Ida B. Wells, one of Chicago's most famous and beloved civil rights activists, once said, "The right way to correct injustice is to shine the light of truth on you." But what if we keep suppressing the truth?
Amazingly, this cover-up took place under a mayor, county board president, and prosecutor who are all black women. This shows us how systematic and widespread these problems are.
Not shocking, government officials are now pointing fingers at each other. With the resignation of Mark Flessner, management consultant for the city of Chicago, this weekend the search for the proverbial bad apple continues. Meanwhile, reform efforts continue to ignore calls for systematic change.
Among the proponents of restorative justice, the powerful symbolism of the mythical Sankofa bird is known. The Sankofa bird cannot move forward without being able to explain the past. As we spend time looking back in order to move forward, we should keep history at the center, especially the history of decades of law and order politics and police violence. This is especially true in a city like Chicago, whose law enforcement agency is notorious for its brutality and racism, including torturing over 100 black men.
This means that instead of relying solely on the police to protect Chicago, we must invest in the services that keep our communities healthy and stop the overfunding of police departments at the expense of other vital functions. It also means that public safety funds will be redistributed to invest in local grassroots organizations that do not respond to emergency calls.
In the meantime, we must at least require that body camera and dash camera videos are stored externally and that civil oversight structures have direct access to them. And if cameras or videos are tampered with or unavailable, judges, prosecutors and ultimately juries and other regulatory agencies should be instructed to view that fact as evidence that whatever is in the video represents the victim's version of events in Police officers would have supported civil and criminal proceedings.
Chicago is not a war zone. Cook County residents like Anjanette Young are not enemy fighters. The outrage over Young's home invasion and attack and the cover-up that followed is well placed and cannot be overcome with simple reform fixes. Her story, and the stories of countless others before her - both known and unknown - must point us to a future that makes more than empty promises about "reform".
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