Skip to main content

Poisoned relationship between police and minorities

By Mark O'Mara
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mark O'Mara: Michael Brown shooting raises concern about racial injustice
  • O'Mara says we don't know enough about evidence to draw conclusions
  • African-Americans have a justified fear of becoming victim to racial bias, he says
  • O'Mara: We have to work together to make sure other tragedies don't happen

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) -- I recently met a woman, the mother of three black teenagers. She told me that after the Trayvon Martin shooting, she forbade her boys to wear hoodies. She warned them never to walk around with their hands in their pockets. She was terrified that someone would find her boys acting suspiciously and one of them would end up being killed.

This is one hell of a thing to be afraid of. I don't think parents of white kids ever really feel this terror -- not in this way.

I defended the man who shot Trayvon Martin, and I believe that the verdict the jury returned was correct and just. But based on my experience defending young black men in the criminal justice system for 30 years, I know her fears are not without foundation. The shooting of Michael Brown -- an unarmed 18-year-old African-American in Ferguson, Missouri -- reinforces her fears, and it gives me a dull, empty feeling in my gut.

Mark O\'Mara
Mark O'Mara

We're hearing conflicting stories about how the Brown shooting happened. Some witnesses say the teenager had his hands up in surrender when an officer opened fire on him. The Ferguson police chief says the officer was attacked in his cruiser, and the first shot was fired inside the car. It's possible both accounts are true, but we don't know.

Here's what we do know: A police officer and a black man interacted, multiple shots were fired, and Michael Brown was 35 feet away from the police car when struck by the shots that killed him. Soon we should know how many times the officer shot Brown, from how far and from what direction. These factors will be critically important in determining whether the shooting was justified or not. Black or white, an officer must be in fear of imminent death or great bodily harm before using deadly force, just like the rest of us.

What we know about Michael Brown's shooting

If Brown was shot from far away, or if he was shot in the back, it would provide strong evidence that he was retreating -- that the officer was not in imminent fear -- and that the shooting was not justified. What we must acknowledge is that we don't yet know enough to be convinced one way or the other.

Now there are cries of "no justice, no peace" as evening vigils turn violent, with rioting and looting. "Justice," it seems in this context, can only be found if the officer is convicted of murder. If facts show the shooting to be justifiable, it will not be seen as justice by those making the demands.

Police delay naming officer in shooting
Police chief: Michael Brown was 'unarmed'

Whether my client is black, white, Latino or something else, here is how I want justice defined: Two sides, well-represented, present their cases in an adversarial system; the law is followed and a just result is inevitable. Brown's case will have the added benefit that it will be tried in the ever-watchful view of intense public scrutiny.

Citing death threats, police won't identify officer in Michael Brown shooting

For many in the black community the reality of the criminal justice system doesn't measure up to the ideal. Many believe that the criminal justice system, from first police interaction to verdict, is infected with a racial bias that taints the possibility of justice as it should be defined. I have long argued in court that such a bias exists; that probable cause didn't exist for this car stop; that hanging on a street corner or sitting on a stoop is not loitering; that "attitude" is not resisting without violence.

While the bias does exist, it's not simply a black and white issue. It's rare to find an overtly racist cop, or an overtly racist judge. The bias is nuanced; it's woven into the system, and it builds with each interaction with the system until, at last, it results in unequal justice.

Consider the very first interactions: A cop and young black male interact on the street, and both give the other a bit of attitude. The officer gives some attitude because he's tired of getting attitude from other young men, and the young man gives some attitude because he's tired of getting attitude from other cops. Now, who's at fault?

This, as simple as it sounds, is how it starts. Once the infection begins, it grows quickly. If you want to say the cop's at fault because he's the adult with training, you are right. And if you want to say the young man is at fault for disrespect or mistrust of a cop's authority, you are right.

Missouri teen shot by police was two days away from starting college

If both sides refuse to move toward the middle, we will all just keep going down this path, and another black family will plan another funeral. Or we can agree that we, each of us, will be better off accepting responsibility for an infection that we cannot defeat individually.

Who makes the first step? The police must. Many police agencies have community outreach programs that are successful. Police officers are in the position of authority, and they have the power to send a message that when they serve a community, they serve all the people of the community equally, regardless of race. To break this cycle, police must recognize there is bias in the system, and they make an effort to treat the people they serve with respect.

In return, we must recognize the risks law enforcement officers take to protect our communities. We must respect their authority. And we must understand the grave reality that the way we engage a police officer can affect whether we walk away, whether we are driven away in handcuffs, or whether we are taken away on a stretcher. This is true for people of every race, from every community -- and unfortunately, with the current bias, it may more true for some of us than for others.

For those who say that talking about this now is an insensitive way to blame Michael Brown for his own death, nothing could be further from the truth. No matter what turns out to have happened that Saturday afternoon, Brown was killed by the infection, by this insidious cycle. Let's see what we can accomplish if we focus on breaking that cycle.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT