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Killer Cops and Vilified Victims

by Jayson Hawkins

In Pericles’ famous funeral oration (circa 430 BC), the classical Greek statesman exhorted his audience never to speak ill of the dead. His advice has been considered part of basic human decency ever since--unless one happens to be a district attorney explaining why local police have murdered another unarmed victim. In that case, it has become increasingly common not only to portray the deceased in a negative light but to insinuate they deserved what they got. 

A year after cops gunned down Stephan Clark in his back yard, the Sacramento DA added to his family’s suffering by making public the dead 22-year-old’s text messages that revealed mental health issues and relationship problems. At the same time, the DA announced that the cops involved in killing Clark would not face charges. Salena Manni, Clark’s fiancée, was outraged that the couple’s personal communications were being used to shift blame for the shooting. “It’s about the officers who murdered him ... because he had a cellphone in his hand,” she told reporters. 

Character assassinations of the dead have become increasingly common in America as prosecutors seek to desensitize the public to police violence. Blaming the victims--who tend to be minorities from disadvantaged neighborhoods--has encouraged cops to act as judge, jury, and executioner regardless of whether a crime has been committed.

Dominic Archibald couldn’t believe the smear campaign that prosecutors waged after a California sheriff’s deputy shot her son in 2015. 

“The scary part to me is they perpetuate this idea ... that he was a bad person and he should’ve been murdered,” she said. 

DAs have claimed their motivation in publicizing unflattering details of a victim’s life is “transparency”--a buzzword intended to be wielded against politicians and corporations, not private citizens.

Nonetheless, prosecutors maintain that knowing the deceased’s background may justify the use of lethal force. The gaping hole in this argument is that cops seldom have such information before opening fire; rather, it’s applied after the fact to vilify the victim. L. Chris Stewart, a civil rights lawyer, put it simply: “The goal is to get the public not to like him.” 

Dragging victims’ reputations through the mud has proven an effective tactic. Cops in the U.S. take the lives of over 1,000 people each year yet are often absolved in the court of public opinion or shielded by the privilege of their badge. Politics also play a role. Most DAs involved in investigating police actions are locally elected, so they are reluctant to indict individuals they work hand-in-hand with and who may have contributed to their campaign.

No wonder then that the records of killer cops are handled very differently than their victims.

After L.A. cop Eden Medina killed 14-year-old Jesse Romero, the high school freshman was branded a potential gang member connected to the heinous crime of vandalism; however, the prosecutor’s office somehow neglected to mention that Officer Medina had slain another unarmed man only two weeks before. 

Diante Yarber, a 26-year-old gunned down inside his car by law enforcement in Barstow, California, also was accused of gang membership posthumously by a DA’s report, yet his family’s attorney identified the false claim as racial profiling.

Absent from the report was the fact that the cop who shot Yarber had earlier been charged with a hate crime. 

A few recently elected DAs have promised to take harder stances on police violence, but few remedies are available to victims’ families. Ethics complaints rarely produce results, and civil suits often take years. Until killer cops and the prosecutors who protect them are held accountable, expect their body counts to keep mounting.  



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