October 7, 2019
Race. Race. Race. It’s the factor that dominates reporting on the criminal justice system, and not just in New York City.
A couple of weeks back, NYPD Confidential reported the release of Virgil Mitchell, a 34-year-old native of Trinidad for a murder he didn’t commit. Because of a false tip and his mistakenly being picked out of a line-up, he had been held in Rikers Island for two years awaiting trial.
“If he were white,” his lawyer said, “this never would have happened.”
That column also reported the posting of a racist video on the website of the Sergeant’s Benevolent Association. Union president Ed Mullins said he had watched only a few minutes of the video with the sound low. When he received an email alerting him to the offensive narration, he had the video removed, and apologized.
Reader reaction to the column was harsh. “I don't find either of those scenarios racist,” a reader emailed. “Racism, oftentimes, is in the eye of the beholder. They may both be unfair, but not necessarily racist.”
“How can you say it is racist in the arrest of a man that was picked out by a witness?” a second reader emailed. “In your second example, why can’t you just take Mullins’s word that it was a mistake? Is it Race. Race. Race. because you want to find racism? Or is it just a liberal knee-jerk reaction?”
A third reader emailed: “Seems people now are intent on finding racism is almost anything. Most whites are terrified of even suggesting that it exists lest the social media lynch mob springs into action. The Bronx case has many ‘guilty’ parties, including economic disadvantage. Were the investigating detectives white, black, or Hispanic? The DA, the gate-keeper of murder investigations, happens to be a black woman, as are many supervisors and assistant DAs. Sounds more like [a] lazy, bureaucratic system rather than overt racism.”
Regarding the SBA video, he wrote: “Mullins may or may not have listened to the racist voice-over. He did not try to defend it and recognized its offensive nature right away. May be some poor judgement but hardly a racist polemic by a union leader.”
Last week, down in Dallas, Texas, Amber Guyger, a white female cop, was found guilty of fatally shooting Botham Jean, a black accountant, in his own apartment. She had mistaken his apartment for her own. She testified she had believed him to be a burglar and said she shot him because “I was scared he was going to kill me.”
So, again, we pose the question, similar to the one asked by Virgil Mitchell’s lawyer in the Bronx: Would Guyger have shot him if he were white?
Yet, after the jury convicted her, Jean’s brother hugged Guyger in the courtroom. A black judge sentenced her to ten years in prison, which drew protests for its perceived leniency. The judge then gave Guyger a bible.
These two gestures, like those readers’ emails to me, suggest that reporting on the criminal justice system involves issues that are more complicated than race.