What to Do? Examining 6 Proposals in the Wake of Garner and Brown

December 11, 2014

This lesson includes two parts. In Part 1, students review the facts about the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases.  In Part 2, students break into small groups to discuss six different proposals that have been made to address injustices related to these incidents.

To the teacher:  

This lesson includes two parts. In Part 1, students review the facts about the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases.  In Part 2, students break into small groups to discuss six different proposals that have been made to address injustices related to these incidents: police body cameras, community policing, demilitarizing the police, ending racial profiling, the right to know act, and a truth and reconciliation process. Each part will likely take a full class session.  If your class has already discussed the cases and has the basic facts, you may want to begin with Part 2.   
 
Our earlier TeachableMoment lesson, Ferguson and Staten Island: Considering the Responses, may help set the stage for this lesson. 
 
Before discussing this sensitive issue with your class, please see these guidelines.
 

PART I

What do we know?

Tell students that the issues we’ll be discussing today are controversial and also emotional for many people. So we need to be very careful to listen to each other and respect each other’s feelings and different points of view.  
 
Write this phrase on the board or chart paper:   
 
Black lives matter.
 
Ask students: Why is this phrase in the news?  
 
Work with students to establish that this phrase is being chanted by protesters around the world  in response to grand jury decisions not to charge police officers in the deaths of two black men, Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY.  
 
Now write two additional phrases on the board: 
 
Hands up, don’t shoot!
I can’t breathe.
 
Ask: What does "Hands up, don’t shoot" refer to?
 
Elicit and explain that this phrase refers to the case of Michael Brown, an unarmed teen who was shot and killed on August 9, 2014, by a white police officer, Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis.  
 
Explain that the case then went before a grand jury. A grand jury  (called "grand because there are usually more than 12 people on it) is convened by a government prosecutor to decide if there is enough evidence to indict someone who is suspected of a crime - that is, to charge the person with a crime and bring them to trial.  To indict someone, the jury must establish that there is "probable cause" to believe that the person has committed a crime. About half of U.S. states do not use grand juries.
 
The grand jury in the Michael Brown case heard differing accounts of what happened in the lead up to Michael Brown’s death on August 9.  Officer Wilson testified that Brown had struggled for his gun and was charging at him when he opened fire. Others testified that Brown was surrendering with his hands up when he was shot (hence the phrase "hands up, don’t shoot).  All agree that Brown was unarmed.  For more details, see this New York Times summary
 
On November 24, the St. Louis County prosecutor announced that a grand jury had decided not to indict the officer Wilson.  The grand jury found that there was not enough evidence to warrant a trial to determine whether Wilson was innocent or guilty. 
 
Ask: What does "I can’t breathe" refer to? 
 
Elicit and explain that this phrase refers to the case of Eric Garner.  On July 17, 2014, Garner, who was 43 and African American, died after police officers tried to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes. According to the medical examiner’s report, Garner died from the chokehold officer Daniel Pantaleo applied and the compression of his chest by the other officers who were part of the arrest.
 
This encounter was captured on videos that have been seen around the world. Garner could be heard repeating "I can’t breathe," in the final moments before his death. The Staten Island grand jury deliberated for less than a day before deciding that there was not enough evidence to go forward with charges against Daniel Pantaleo. 
 

Opinions Vary 

In the wake of the grand jury decisions in these two cases, protests have erupted across the U.S. and the world.  
 
However, people’s opinions vary widely on these two cases. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, the majority of Americans (and a plurality of both blacks and whites) believe that the grand jury ruling in the Garner case was wrong and the case should have gone to trial.  
 
Opinions are more divided in the Michael Brown case, with 80 percent of blacks saying the grand jury decision was wrong, but only 23 percent of whites saying it was wrong.  
 
Young people (of all colors) are much more likely than older people to believe that both decisions were wrong.  
 
 

Why are people protesting?

Tell students that today we’ll discuss some of the reasons why people are protesting following these two decisions.  Later, we’ll examine a few of the proposals people have put forward to address what they view as injustices underlying the events in Ferguson and Staten Island.   
 
Begin by eliciting from students a list of concerns that protesters, elected officials and others have raised about these two cases. Record students’ responses on the board or chart paper.  Prompt students by noting that some of the concerns relate to police behavior and policies, some relate to the way the justice system operates, and some relate to wider issues of racial injustice.
 
Make sure students understand each of the responses, and correct any misinformation that you can. 
 
Here are some of the concerns students may be aware of:
  • racial profiling 
  • overuse of force (such as the chokehold that killed Eric Garner)
  • racial bias and insensitivity among police
  • racial composition of the police force (many police departments are disproportionately white)
  • bias in the justice system that favors police officers 
  • racial composition of the grand juries in these cases 
  • a flawed grand jury system
  • overall racial injustice and racism 
  • overall economic injustice 

 

PART 2

6 Proposals

Ask students: 
  • What kinds of changes might address the concerns that have been raised by the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner?
  • What reform proposals have you heard about?  
Record students’ responses on the board. 
 
Explain that many people have put forward proposals in response to events in Ferguson and Staten Island - including protesters, President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, and groups that promote civil liberties and racial justice. These proposals range from modest reforms to broader calls for change.  
 
Today we’re going to explore just a few of the proposals people have made: 
  • police body cameras
  • community policing
  • demilitarizing the police
  • ending racial profiling
  • right to know act
  • truth and reconciliation process   

(For some additional proposals that focus on NYC, see this Gotham Gazette piece.)

 

Small Group Reading & Discussion

Ask students to break into six small groups.
 
Give each group a different fact sheet on a proposed reform. (Fact sheets are below, or download this pdf.)  These brief fact sheets only touch the surface of complex issues, but will provide students with a  bit of background.  Note that there are links embedded in the fact sheets (and spelled out in the pdf) that can be used for further study of the proposals. 
 
Ask students to read the fact sheet in their group and then discuss the questions that follow each reading. They should choose a recorder and a reporter for the group. 
 
Give the groups 15 minutes to read the fact sheet and discuss the questions that follow each reading, then reconvene the class. 
 

Whole-Group Discussion

 
Ask each group to say a few things about the proposal they discussed. Give time for other students to ask questions about the proposal.  Discuss. Record any questions that remain unanswered.
 
Repeat the process with each group.
 
Ask: Are there any proposals you feel are needed that have not been included?  If there are, record these responses and ask students to say why they think this proposal is needed. 
 

Homework  

 
Ask students to research the proposal that they like best, answering any questions students had about the proposal. Then write a short persuasive essay arguing for the proposal and explaining their reasons. 
 
In a later class, have students share their essays. If students are interested, help them decide on a proposal they would like to work on as a group, and support them in taking action.
 

Closing

Share one thing you would like to see coming out of the events in Ferguson and Staten Island.
 
 

 

Proposal 1: Police Body Cameras

 
After the Ferguson grand jury made its decision in the Michael Brown case, Brown’s family issued a call urging people to protest peacefully and to "join us in our campaigns to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera."
 
Body cameras (also called "cop cams") are small, pager-sized cameras that clip onto an officer's uniform or are worn as a headset. They record audio and video of the officer's interactions with the public.  Police departments around the country, including in New York City, are beginning to use these cameras to document what happens in encounters between police officers and the public, events that are often in dispute - as they were in the case of Michael Brown.   President Obama has included body cameras as part of his proposal to "strengthen community policing."
 
Proponents  say the cameras would provide evidence that might protect the public against police misconduct, and also help protect police in cases where they have been falsely accused. 
 
Some police officials support the body cameras, but others express concern.  Boston police Commissioner William B. Evans said he was "worried about its impact on our relationship with the community.  I fear that a lot of people... might not want to have that interaction with us if they knew they're on camera or they're being recorded."
 
Many people have noted that in the case of Eric Garner, there was video and audio documentation of the interaction between Garner and the officers (via cell phone).  And yet the nature of the interaction was still in dispute, and the grand jury found there was not enough evidence to charge the officer whose chokehold killed Garner. 
 
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which opposes most kinds of government surveillance, says that "the challenge of on-officer cameras is the tension between their potential to invade privacy and their strong benefit in promoting police accountability. Overall, we think they can be a win-win—but only if they are deployed within a framework of strong policies to ensure they protect the public without becoming yet another system for routine surveillance of the public, and maintain public confidence in the integrity of those privacy protections."
 
 
Questions to discuss:
 
1. What are some arguments for and against this proposal?
2. Do you think this proposal makes sense? Why or why not?
3. What questions do you have about the proposal?  Write these down. 
4. What is important to share with the class about this proposal and what we think about it?
 
 
 

 

Proposal 2:  Community Policing

 
President Obama and many others have argued that one way to reduce incidents like those in Ferguson and Staten Island is to expand a policing strategy called "community policing."  Obama proposed to create a "new task force to promote expansion of the community-oriented policing model, which encourages strong relationships between law enforcement and the communities that they serve as a proven method of fighting crime." 
 
"Community policing" is a broad term, and many police departments use some version of it.  It can range from getting police out of their cars and into regular face-to-face contact with community members, to regular meetings between police and community members to address crime issues, to more involved strategies in which police are in dialogue with gang members and others to increase understanding, address needs, and reduce crime. 
 
Community policing aims to both engage the community in combatting crime and enable police officers to establish positive relationships with community members, so that police officers can see problems in the community more holistically and humanistically. Instead of simply responding to emergency calls and arresting suspects, police officers have positive interactions with the community. 
 
The Police Reform Organizing Project  advocates for an intensive kind of community policing such as that used in New Orleans as part of that city’s NOLA for Life murder-reduction strategy. The idea is to address the city's crime problem in much the way public health officials work to eradicate infectious diseases, addressing such underlying problems as  poor educational and job opportunities, insufficient mental health services, neighborhood blight, and inadequate police training.
 
 
Questions to discuss:
 
1.  Do you think this proposal makes sense? Why or why not?
2.  Do you think some kinds of community policing might be more effective than others? Why?
3.  What questions do you have about the proposal?  Write these down. 
4.  What is important to share with the class about this proposal and what we think about it?
 
 

 

Proposal 3: Demilitarizing the Police

 
In the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, protesters took to the streets. They were met with a police response that included military tanks, combat gear and assault rifles. The military equipment came from the U.S. Defense Department, which has been giving local law enforcement  surplus equipment from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, including helicopters, firearms, protective gear, night vision, and camouflage clothing.
 
Jim Pasco, the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, defended the program, saying it has helped law enforcement keep up with criminals.
 
In December, President Obama  announced that he would tighten standards on the provision of military-style equipment to local police departments, but did not announce support for ending the transfer of military-grade gear to local law enforcement authorities.  Obama administration officials argued that the military-style equipment strengthened local policing, but that local authorities needed common standards in the types of hardware they requested and better training in how to use it.
 
But some people on both the political left and right say that local police should not be using military equipment and tactics on Americans.  "When you begin to confuse and blur the lines between the military and police, you get unnecessary violent confrontations, such as what we're seeing in Ferguson," said Tim Lynch, a criminal justice expert at the libertarian Cato Institute.  Kara Dansky, senior counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said  that "When people see what looks like a tank in their neighborhoods, they start to think they are under siege," she said. "It's an excessive show of force. It tends to put people in harm’s way and exacerbates the risk of violence."
 
The organization Black Youth Project 100 supports a proposal called the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act of 2014 would put strict limits on the transfer and use of military equipment to local law enforcement.  
 
 
Questions to discuss:
 
1. What are some arguments for and against demilitarizing the police?
2. Do you think the proposal makes sense? Why or why not?
3. What questions do you have about the proposal?  Write these down. 
4. What is important to share with the class about this proposal and what we think about it?
 
 
 

 

Proposal 4: Ending racial profiling 

 
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) defines "racial  profiling" as "the discriminatory practice by law enforcement officials of targeting individuals for suspicion of crime based on the individual's race, ethnicity, religion or national origin... Examples of racial profiling are the use of race to determine which drivers to stop for minor traffic violations (commonly referred to as ‘driving while black or brown’), or the use of race to determine which pedestrians to search for illegal contraband."
 
Political leaders from both left and right (such as former president George W. Bush) have decried racial profiling, but it is still widespread. It was an issue in Ferguson, MO, where the state attorny general found that black drivers were the target of 86 percent of traffic stops in the city last year, and 93 percent of traffic stops that ended in an arrest. (Blacks make up 63 percent of the local population over 16.)
 
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he opposed racial profiling but defended the city’s "stop and frisk" policy, in which police have stopped hundreds of thousands of people, about 87 percent of them Black or Latino (89 percent were found to be doing nothing wrong).  Bloomberg said that stop-and-frisk is justified:   "Unlike many cities, where wealthy areas get special treatment, the NYPD targets its manpower to the areas that suffer the highest crime levels. Ninety percent of all people killed in our city — and 90?percent of all those who commit the murders and other violent crimes — are black and Hispanic."  
 
However, a federal judge found that stop and frisk violated the constitutional rights of the city’s blacks and Latinos. 
 
Not long after the Garner and Brown grand jury decisions, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced new policies against racial profiling at the federal level.  "As attorney general, I have repeatedly made clear that profiling by law enforcement is not only wrong, it is profoundly misguided and ineffective," Holder said. "Particularly in light of certain recent incidents we’ve seen at the local level, and the widespread concerns about trust in the criminal justice process, it’s imperative that we take every possible action to institute strong and sound policing practices."  However, Holder’s policies will not directly affect local police departments like those in Ferguson and New York City.  
 
Protesters and civil liberties organizations support passage of the End Racial Profiling Act, which would:
  • prohibit the use of profiling based on race, religion, ethnicity or national origin by any federal, state, local or Indian tribal law enforcement agency;
  • give individuals recourse if they have been unfairly targeted by such practices;
  • institute programs to eliminate racial profiling that would require training for law enforcement agents, data collection, and procedures for responding to complaints;
  • permit the Attorney General to withhold grants from law enforcement agencies not complying with the Act and provide grants to agencies that are attempting to develop and implement best practices to eliminate racial profiling; and
  • mandate that the Attorney General submit periodic reports to Congress on any discriminatory policing practices to ensure that the intent of the bill is being met over time.
 
Questions to discuss:
 
1. What do you think about Mayor Bloomberg’s argument in favor of stop and frisk?
2. What do you think of the End Racial Profiling Act? 
3. What questions do you have about the proposal?  Write these down. 
4. What is important to share with the class about this proposal and what we think about it?
 
 

 

Proposal 5:  Right to Know Act


This proposal, now under consideration by the New York City Council, would require police officers conducting warrantless searches to tell the individuals that they have a right not to be searched. Officers would then have to create an audio or signed written record indicating consent to the search. In addition, police would be required to give a business card to people they stop if there is no arrest or summons.

The intent of the law, according to the proposers, is  to "create greater transparency in law enforcement practices," which will "shield police officers from false claims of wrongdoing, and contribute to the efficiency and effectiveness of our criminal justice system."

However, Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said the bill was "an onerous and unnecessary intrusion...It’s totally unnecessary. It’s part of an ongoing effort to bridle the police and the City of New York."

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director at the New York Civil Liberties Union, which supports the Right to Know Act, said that it's "hard to predict" the effect the legislation would have had on Garner's case specifically. However, she said, "to the extent that Eric Garner is the result of a situation that was unnecessarily escalated because a police officer felt challenged in his authority, these bills go right to the heart of that situation."

 

Questions to discuss:

1. What are some arguments for and against the "right to know act"?

2. Do you think the proposal makes sense? Why or why not?

3. What questions do you have about the proposal?  Write these down.

4. What is important to share with the class about this proposal and what we think about it?

 

 

Proposal 6: Truth & Reconciliation Process


The Brown and Garner cases shine a light on ongoing racial injustice in our society. People have come up with a wide variety of proposals to address some of the underlying injustices that these two cases have highlighted.  These include a "national plan of action on racial justice" endorsed by groups including the US Human Rights Network and Ferguson Action.

The proposal below describes another approach aimed at achieving greater racial justice.

A range of groups, including religious organizations, have called for a U.S. "truth and reconciliation" process, modeled on a process used in South Africa, to address historical and present-day racism. 

Fania Davis, a civil rights attorney and executive director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, makes this argument for a national restorative process in the magazine Yes:

"To move toward a reconciled America, we have to do the work ourselves. Reconciliation is an ongoing and collective process. We must roll up our sleeves and do the messy, challenging, but hopeful work of creating transformed relationships and structures leading us into new futures. Someone like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who headed up South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, might come to Ferguson to inspire and guide us as we take the first steps on this journey.

A Ferguson Truth and Reconciliation process based on restorative justice principles could not only stop the epidemic but also allow us as a nation to take a first ‘step on the road to reconciliation,' to borrow a phrase from the South African experience. A restorative justice model means that youth, families, and communities directly affected by the killings—along with allies—would partner with the federal government to establish a commission. Imagine a commission that serves as a facilitator, community organizer, or Council of Elders to catalyze, guide, and support participatory, inclusive, and community-based processes....

The process will create public spaces where we face together the epidemic of killings and its root causes, identify the needs and responsibilities of those affected, and also figure out what to do as a nation to heal harms and restore relationships and institutions to forge a new future."

 

Questions to discuss:

1. Do you think a truth and reconciliation process would benefit our society? Why or why not?

2. What questions do you have about the proposal?  Write these down.

3. What is important to share with the class about this proposal and what we think about it?