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Attorney Kamau Franklin explains why the prosecutor’s approach in Tamir Rice’s case was flawed from the beginning and highlights the tools needed to bring a change beyond just criminal justice reform

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. You may remember the story of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was fatally shot within seconds after police officers arrived at a Cleveland recreational center where Tamir was playing with a toy gun. On Monday the county prosecutor announced that there would be no criminal charges brought against the police officer that shot and killed Tamir. It is often said that prosecutors have the ability to indict ham sandwiches, yet the non-indictment of the Cleveland police officer represents yet another example of police acquittal. In fact, according to a study out of Bowling Green State University, a little over 1 percent of on-duty police shootings were charged, police officers were charged, from 2014-2011. Here to discuss this story is Kamau Franklin. Kamau’s an attorney who has organized around issues such as youth development, police misconduct, and creating sustainable urban communities. Thanks so much for joining us, Kamau. KAMAU FRANKLIN: Thanks for having me. DESVARIEUX: So Kamau, of course the first question is why. Why are we seeing repeatedly that grand juries are not able to indict police officers, like in the case of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, now we have Tamir Rice to add to that list. When Tamir’s family heard the news they said that they were not surprised. What does that say about the process? FRANKLIN: Well, it says that the process in some ways is working as it was designed. Prosecutors have a lot of discretion. And prosecutors, as you know, lead the prosecutorial way in which we do things when it comes to a grand jury. So in this particular case we had a prosecutor who, from the beginning, admitted that his primary role in terms of the studies and information that he released was not in securing an indictment, but in the opposite. In basically trying to show that these police officers were justified. And so it’s a little unheard of when it comes to a prosecutor’s role–at least, outwardly admitting that that’s what they’re doing, when it comes to a prosecutor’s role in securing an indictment. A prosecutor controls the grand jury process. They decide who gets to testify. They control what information comes in. And as you stated, the prosecutor has a lot of discretion and leads that grand jury process to the point of almost securing, in most cases, a grand jury indictment. So here we had a prosecutor who did the exact opposite. Instead of trying to seek justice or trying to play what their role is or do what their job tells them that they are supposed to do, which is to seek an indictment, and then let a jury decide the guilt or innocence, this prosecutor started from the opposite pole and decided that he was not going to present all of the evidence, that he was going to present evidence that he thought would exonerate the police officers in the grand jury’s mind, and the went so far as to tell the grand jury that he didn’t think indictments were necessary in this particular case. So the family wasn’t surprised. I don’t think the general public was surprised. And obviously organizers and activists, and anybody who’s done work on this kind of, on these kind of cases in the past, were not surprised either about what the outcomes turned out to be. DESVARIEUX: Yeah. And after the shooting of Tamir Rice, the city of Cleveland is now expected to spend more than $13 million for police reforms, like more training and body cameras. Kamau, do you see these sort of efforts as being enough? And in other words, what systemic changes really need to happen in order for the police to be held accountable? FRANKLIN: I think when we talk about changes, these kind of changes are necessary. There are sort of a bundle of different kinds of changes that have been advocated for decades, if not centuries, actually, when it comes to how policing is conducted. Particularly in black communities. So everything from–recently people are advocating for body cams and dash cams, to civilian complaint review boards that have subpoena power and teeth, to having special prosecutors, which is something that most folks who are organizing around this think is really necessary so that you can really cut off that relationship between the prosecutor and the police. The prosecutor and the police have a tight working relationship. Not only sort of an ideological relationship when it comes to thinking that anybody arrested is normally guilty, except when they’re police officers, but they depend on each other for securing evidence and testimony. So the relationship between them, if it’s frayed or broken, or somehow it breaks down at least in the prosecutor’s mind, the way in which they can present cases, and does it ensure their ability to win victories and to have guilty pleas. So having a special prosecutor actually can take the person who works closely with the police, or the institution that works closely to the police, out of the picture and instead put an institution in that has some separation, that does not depend on the police for winning convictions, and so forth. So I think those things are common things that are asked for, but we have to realize that even with all of this, because of the very nature of the society that we live in, these are tools that oppressed people need in order to battle police misconduct, police brutality, and police killings. But because the–again, the very nature of the community or very nature of the state we live in, these will not be enough to end the systematic killing and arrest and overpolicing that happened in black and brown communities. This is more of an ideological and racial history that really comes into play about how policing is done, which won’t change unless power dynamics really change. So not only do we need legislative changes and policy changes, but economic changes and institutional changes. Who controls the police in these communities. Whether or not they’re black police officers is not as important as whether or not black people actually control who gets to do policing in their communities. And that won’t happen until more systemic and systematic changes outside of criminal justice reform take place. DESVARIEUX: You mentioned power dynamics, and I want to talk about unions. In this country unions have really been crushed, but the police unions, they’ve been able to hold on to a certain level of power. Why do they have that kind of political power? FRANKLIN: I think as police unions across the board, whether or not–don’t necessarily fall into a, sort of a camp around Democratic and Republican politics. Normally both Democrats and Republicans are chasing after police unions for indictments. And the working police officers have a relatively speaking conservative attitude when it comes to larger body politics. So their strength is not something which particularly right-wing politicians look to cut off, but they look to seek endorsements from the police. They look to have the police on their side. I think that same thing goes for obviously Democratic politicians who are also seeking police union endorsements. So the police union has a special strength within this larger sort of union–larger unions, because they’re not necessarily thought about being sort of a liberal or left or on one side of a particular political agenda. They’re looked upon as being these sort of larger institution that has, that seeks and gets support from both sides of the political spectrum. DESVARIEUX: Yeah, and some would say they’re really on the side of the elite, essentially, as well. Kamau, I want to talk about the timing of the announcement. A lot of activist groups are saying that the prosecutor’s announcement was intentional since–the timing of it was intentional, because it happened over a holiday week. What do you make of this, and as an activist yourself, what are you encouraged to do, and what would you encourage others to do in light of this news? FRANKLIN: I think it’s purposeful. I think having this come out, I mean, this indictment process went on for over 13 months since the killing took place. Having the news come out during a holiday season, knowing that the reactions would be somewhat muted because people would be distracted with family, travel, and the rest of it, this only fits into a larger pattern of knowing beforehand that what the prosecutor wanted the outcome to be and when he wanted to make sure that the information was relayed, to sort of mute community response. But I think the reaction should be what it’s been in other places, particularly from local activists and organizers, is that they need to get the larger community out in the street. But I think beyond that, beyond, again, the institutional reforms that we have to push for, the policy reforms we have to push for, we have to think of other systemic things that need to change in our communities. And that’s around controlling resources, that’s around controlling labor, controlling economics in our community. And that’s around changing these institutions. Because again, training and the other things around body cams, all the things that we need to have because they’re tools that oppressed people need, but in and of themselves are not going to be enough until there’s some major shifts in resources and control of institutions. DESVARIEUX: All right. Kamau Franklin, thank you so much for joining us. FRANKLIN: Thank you for having me. DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Kamau Franklin is an attorney. He is the founder of the grassroots organizing group Community Movement Builders, Inc., and is co-host of the Renegade Culture podcast that covers news and culture in the Black community.