Opinion: Legality, Morality, and Police Brutality

By Parker Scarpa, Clarion Staffer

On March 18, 2018, Stephon Clark, an unarmed 22 year old man, was shot and killed by Sacramento police officers.  Almost a year later, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert declined to press criminal charges against the officers, sparking protests from the black community and others. Schubert concluded that the officers “had an honest and reasonable belief that they were in imminent danger” and “acted lawfully under the circumstances.” In the same 61-page report, Schubert found that the officers fired a total of 20 rounds at Clark and that he was shot seven times, six times in the back.  Clark’s killing has sparked fierce debate across both Sacramento and the nation, yet, unlike other cases of police brutality, the facts are clear: both the District Attorney and the protesters agree that Clark was an unarmed, innocent man who did not deserve to die. In the case of Clark’s killing, the conflict between supporters of the DA’s decision and protesters comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the concepts of legality and morality.

The District Attorney’s job is to answer the question “Were these officers’ actions legal?”, but the question the protesters are trying to raise is “Do we want to live in a country where these officers’ actions are legal?”  The latter question is far more consequential to the future of our nation. The legality of the case is inconsequential because, whether or not the officers are guilty of misconduct, an innocent man was deliberately shot seven times and killed in his grandmother’s backyard.  As Americans we have to decide if that’s the price we’re willing to pay in the name of strong law enforcement. Clark’s killing prompts the American people to make an important decision, but it’s not one of legality (leave that to the courts); the decision we have to make is whether we value police officers’ rights to prevent potentially dangerous situations more than we value innocent civilians’ right to live.

Make no mistake, both of these rights are fundamental to American values: American citizens are guaranteed a presumption of innocence in criminal cases and shouldn’t have to live in fear of law enforcement, and police officers deserve to be able to protect themselves in the event of a truly dangerous situation.

There is no easy answer here, but, as these values come into conflict more and more in our communities, we, as a nation, need to make those tough calls.  Do we regulate police more strictly and potentially place officers in more dangerous situations, or do we maintain the status quo and simply accept the death of Clark as “s*** happens”?  Or is there a third option, some middle ground perhaps? There is no clear answer, but that’s the conversation Americans need to be having.

If public discourse is focused only on the legality of the case, we have already conceded to the morality of the status quo.  It’s not our job as citizens to determine whether the officers properly upheld the law; it’s our job as Americans to determine whether the law properly upholds our values.  That is the power and responsibility our constitution guarantees to every one of us. That ability to constantly remold society in our image is what makes America great.

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