Posts Tagged ‘Jimmy Lee Bruce’

35 Years and 9 1/2 Minutes to ‘Guilty’

Monday, April 26th, 2021

Derek Chauvin (left) and George Floyd.

Derek Chauvin (left) and George Floyd.

By Bob Gaydos

I exhaled with much of the rest of America — indeed, the world — last week when Judge Peter Cahill said simply and without any emotion, one word: “Guilty.” He said it twice more in reading the jury’s verdict and a tear slid down my cheek. Thank God. There won’t be any riots. They got it right. Finally, they got it right.

     All it took was a video showing 9 ½ minutes of George Floyd, a black man, being murdered by Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer. Nine-and-a-half minutes of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck while he said repeatedly, “I can’t breathe.“ Nine-and-a-half minutes and, in my personal experience, 35 years.

      Last year,when Floyd was killed, I wrote this: “I was writing editorials for The Times Herald-Record, the local paper, when Jimmy Lee Bruce, a 20-year-old black man, died in the back of a patrol car near Middletown on Dec. 13, 1986. He and a group of friends from Ellenville, N.Y., had gone to a movie theater in a mall outside Middletown. The group became rowdy. There was drinking involved. Two white, off-duty Middletown police officers, acting as security guards, escorted the group out of the theater. A scuffle ensued. An officer applied a chokehold to Bruce and tossed him in the back of a police car, which had brought two on-duty Town of Wallkill police officers to the scene.

       “The police then drove around for 7½ minutes looking for Bruce’s friends. When they returned to the theater, a state trooper, who had also arrived on the scene, shined a flashlight in the back of the patrol car and noticed the young man was not responding to the light. Police rushed him to a nearby hospital, but attempts to revive him failed.”

        I’ll cut to the chase. There was no video in the Bruce case. No recording of him saying he couldn’t breathe. No officers were even indicted in Bruce’s death, much less charged, tried and convicted, as was Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis. Accountability is a necessary first step to someday attaining justice. The opportunities for that keep coming.

        There were at least three police shootings of black persons in America within 24 hours of the Chauvin verdict. There was also the 24-hour racist drumbeat of Fox News and the white supremacist movement now known as the Republican Party, criticizing the verdict and claiming the jurors were frightened. But those voices are being somewhat muted today by those of the majority of Americans who are not only tired of the white cop kills black civilian and gets away with it scenario, but embarrassed and angry about it.

         That’s why the Chauvin verdict was so important. That’s why I held my breath and prayed. If the jury couldn’t return a guilty verdict in this case, I thought to myself, there was no hope for America.

          We got a break. The verdict in the Floyd case says there’s still hope for us. All we have to do is change pretty much everything about the way most police forces operate in this country today.

          Attorney General Merrick Garland got the ball rolling quickly, announcing that the U.S. Justice Department was launching an investigation of the operations of the Minneapolis Police Department, Garland will head the investigation himself. This crucial role of the federal government was abandoned by the Trump administration‘s useless attorneys general, Jeff Sessions and Bill Barr.

          What else needs to be done? Diversify police recruiting. Hire more women. Weed out racists in the ranks and reject applicants with sketchy records. Give recruits more training, including on how to talk to the public, how to de-escalate tense situations and especially on how to use force properly. Make it their duty to speak out about improper use of force by other officers. Ban the use of chokeholds. Get rid of that surplus military hardware. Stop dressing police like storm troopers. They are not an occupying army. Police have traditionally been part of the community. Encourage them to become involved in the community again. Act swiftly and surely to punish officers who abuse their position. Do not allow officers who are fired for misconduct to be hired by other police departments. Educate all officers on the First Amendment rights of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of peaceful assembly. Make the entire community part of this reconditioning process. Do what they do in my neck of the woods, Orange  County, N.Y.,, and send mental health professionals along with police when the situation warrants and have a crisis line dedicated specifically to deal with issues that do not necessarily require a police presence. Incorporate an updated and honest version of race issues in America in high school history classes. Elect public officials who are willing to say, publicly, that it is possible to want to punish bad cops and still respect those police officers who do their job honorably and, yes, often in the face of danger. 

           Much of that I wrote 35 years ago. The list has gotten longer as the list of victims has grown, including Eric Garner, a black man whose cries of “I can’t breathe” actually were recorded, to no avail. He died of an illegal chokehold applied by a white policeman on Staten Island in 2014. Garner was guilty of selling loose cigarettes. Somehow, despite the recording, justice was avoided. That’s why I awaited the verdict on George Floyd’s murder with such anxiety. The bigots in the Trump camp, all the Trump wannabes in the Republican Party will continue to stomp their feet and lie about some conspiracy or other in the face of any attempted police reforms. It’s all they ever do.

            The jury in Minneapolis got it right. Now it’s up to the rest of us to do the same so that, for one thing, future jurors in police homicide cases won’t have to be anonymous to protect their lives. Think about that. It would be nice if we could do it in my lifetime, but I don’t think I have another 35 years to wait.

rjgaydos@gmail.com

Bob Gaydos is a writer/in-residence at zestoforange.com.

             

            

Two Deaths Separated Only by Decades

Thursday, December 11th, 2014

By Bob Gaydos

Eric Garner, moments before his death.

Eric Garner, moments before his death.

Jimmy Lee Bruce, meet Eric Garner. You’ve got a lot in common. You’re both black men from New York state. Both of you had an encounter with police officers over some comparatively minor matter. Neither of you had any weapon. You both gave the police a hard time and had what is described as a “choke hold” applied to you by an officer. You both died as a result of that use of official force.

Interestingly, those police officers had some things in common as well. They were all white. None of them was trained in the use of the choke hold, which was prohibited by their respective police forces. Also, none of them was indicted on any charges by a grand jury in connection with your deaths.

The only thing separating the two of you is time. A little more than twenty-seven years. …

Jimmy Lee Bruce died in the back of a patrol car near Middletown, N.Y., on Dec. 13, 1986. He was 20 years old. He and a group of friends from Ellenville, N.Y., had gone to a movie theater in a mall outside Middletown. The group became rowdy. There was drinking involved. Off-duty Middletown police officers acting as security guards, escorted the group out of the theater, where a scuffle ensued. An officer applied the choke hold to Bruce and tossed him in the back of a police car, which had brought two on-duty Town of Wallkill police officers to the scene.

The police then drove around for 7 ½ minutes looking for Bruce’s friends. When they returned to the theater, a state trooper, who had also arrived on the scene, shined a flashlight in the back of the patrol car and noticed the young man was not responding to the light. Police rushed him to a nearby hospital, but attempts to revive him failed.

Two months after the incident, an Orange County grand jury began considering whether any of the officers did anything criminally wrong in connection with Bruce’s death. It determined that none of the officers did anything criminally wrong because none of them had received any training in the proper application of what they, more benignly, referred to as the “sleeper hold,” nor in what could result from improper use of the dangerous hold. It was an accident.

Which brings us to Eric Garner, at 43, somewhat older than Bruce and someone known to police in his Staten Island neighborhood as a familiar problem — mostly for selling loose cigarettes on the street and getting mouthy with police who tell him to stop. On July 17 of this year, Garner, the father of six, got mouthy and maybe more with a police officer who told him to stop selling the cigarettes. The officer applied the choke hold. Garner went down. A witness taped the incident on a cell phone and caught Garner, an asthmatic, exclaiming, “I can’t breathe!” A coroner ruled the death a homicide.

A Richmond County grand jury this month determined — despite the video — that there was no criminal wrongdoing on the part of the police officer. This ruling, coming on the heels of a similar case in Ferguson, Mo., and in the wake of a number of deaths of young black males at the hands of white police, has spurred large, public demonstrations across the country and, in fact, around the world. Justice! is the cry.

But what is justice?

For sure, it means eliminating any doubt of conflict of interest in the future by having special prosecutors, not local district attorneys, handle cases involving deaths of unarmed civilians at the hands of local police officers. This would protect police, prosecutors and the public.

But that’s not nearly enough.

Shortly after Garner’s death, William Bratton, New York City police commissioner, told the New York City Council that he was calling for a “fundamental shift in the culture of the department” in the wake of the chokehold killing of Garner. That “shift” will include three days of annual training for every police officer who works patrol on:

  • How to talk to the public
  • How to de-escalate tense situations
  • How to use force.

I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Nearly three decades ago, I wrote an editorial for The Times Herald-Record in Middletown about the grand jury ruling on Jimmy Lee Bruce’s death: “Your son’s death resulted because the police didn’t know what they were doing, not because they intended to kill your son. Case closed. The system worked. Do you buy that …?”

Yet today, the head of the largest police force in the country tells us that men and women going through New York City’s Police Academy are not trained on how to talk to the public. Not taught how to de-escalate tense situations. Aren’t instructed on how to properly use force.

How then are they supposed to do their job? Police work can be  dangerous. Many officers handle it daily with sensitivity and professionalism. But justice, it would seem to me, would begin with preparing all officers to deal with what they are likely to encounter on the streets, not simply giving them firearms training. And certainly not arming them with military-grade weaponry that creates an us-versus-them situation. This can lead some police officers to forget that they, indeed, are also us.

To protect and serve is the mission of police. That must begin with a certain mindset. It astounds me that Bratton still has his job after his admission before the City Council. Not only did he say his officers aren’t trained to deal with tense situations and how to properly use force, he actually asked for 1,000 more officers and $25 million for instructors and overtime to cover posts while patrol officers are receiving three days of annual training. If it were up to me, I’d provide the department with the money and the positions and get rid of the commissioner, who all of a sudden realizes he needs to change the “culture” of his department.

The pressures of policing in Ferguson, New York City and Middletown are different, but the answers are the same. Justice for all must begin with an emphasis on diversity in police recruiting, so that minority populations can feel they at least have a voice in their own protection. The diversity of the crowds demonstrating in response to the Garner case give credence to that. Justice also means providing the training Bratton acknowledges his officers need today — the training the officers in Middletown needed on Dec. 13, 1986.

The outrage expressed by demonstrators over the grand jury decision in the Garner case is magnified for me by having known the story of Jimmy Lee Bruce. Have we learned nothing in all that time? Should Jimmy Lee Bruce have reacted differently when confronted by police? Hindsight would suggest yes. The same goes for Eric Garner. But being rowdy in a movie theater, selling loose cigarettes and being confrontational with police are not capital crimes.

rjgaydos@gmail.com