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Lessons from the Police

Mounrners pay homage to slain teen, Michael Brown
Mounrners pay homage to slain teen, Michael Brown
Photo by Pool/Getty Images

This week the Torah portion I will chant in synagogue is Shoftim. That biblical lesson from the book of Deuteronomy deals with the roles of judges and law enforcers. Given the recent appearance of police in the news, the reading is all the more poignant.

For those of us in Central Ohio, we have noted police news not only on a national level, but on a local level as well. Whether the news items were in the local press or national press, there are several lessons to be garnered from recent events.

On the local scene, this last week saw the firing of the Chillicothe chief of police. In addition, during the prior week, a police officer from the Detroit force was fired for drug distribution. In both of these cases there was extensive investigation and exploration before decisions were rendered. While both men were found to have acted wrongly, with judgments made against both, the process of finding them guilty was that prescribed by law. In addition, there was no pre-judging of the men in the broadcast news nor in print. It can be assumed, therefore, that due process was followed fairly. While it is sad to think that police could be corrupted and act wrongly, the rights of the two charged individuals were protected. Withal they were found guilty, and in the aftermath of that decision there was no great upheaval. The rules of justice were the standard applied.

Compare those two proper outcomes with two other, recent police events. Michael Brown, an African American youth, was shot down by a white, Fergusson, Mo police officer. During the same time period a black police officer in Salt Lake City, Ut shot and killed a white man outside of a convenience store. The former case has been the core of many national news broadcasts since the day it occurred, nearly two weeks ago. The latter has been all but ignored, and would not be known were it not brought to the fore by several Conservative pundits.

Let's not equivocate, the killing of Brown seems to be an excessive act. Even if Brown had robbed a convenience store only moments before, at first blush there is no reason that Brown should have been killed. That message has played loud and clear in print and broadcast media since the day the sad event happened. Add to this the voices of most of the talking heads, and the speculations of Al Sharpton and his ilk, who suggest that this death was premeditated and based on racial prejudice.

It is sad when any person is killed. Genesis 1:27 teaches “God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him.” Rabbinic commentaries ask why did God create man alone? They answered, in order to teach the utter value of each person. If one was killed, the entire world would not have come to exist. Add to this the Noahide law that appears in Genesis 9:27, “One who spills the blood of a man, his blood shall be spilled.”

Biblical tradition seems clear. Those who kill can expect retribution through the courts. Murder; and expect a capital punishment to follow.

However, underpinning this whole process, especially in American jurisprudence, but in the Jewish approach to law as well, an accused person is assumed innocent until proven guilty. Moreover, in Jewish law, at the very least, none can be found guilty unless there is reliable testimony from reliable eyewitnesses.

In the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death there has been no presumption of innocence. Were this event occurring in an earlier era, one might not have been surprised if a lynch mob was formed to hasten his killer’s demise.

Add to this the reaction of the crowds. Thanks to incendiary remarks by Attorney General Eric Holder and Reverend Al Sharpton, angry crowds were not placated, they catalyzed mobs to continue pigheaded, illegal actions. They blamed events on Brown being black. The mobs, replete with outside instigators, rampaged through the streets of Fergusson. They shouted anti white, racial epithets. They destroyed property and practiced thievery. Michael Brown’s own family was so disgusted by this turn of events that they spoke on camera of it frequently. Police officers striving to restore peace were so badly outgunned that they needed to bring in military equipment to face the angry masses with relative safety.

There is no excuse for this reaction to Brown’s death. Among other reasons, there is no clear knowledge of what happened leading up to his death. Armed or not, did he attack his killer? Did he ever put up his arms and cry “don’t shoot”, as the sloganeerss suggest? Were there any eyewitnesses to the events?

If Brown was improperly executed, which may have happened, his killer deserves to have the book thrown at him. What should happen if proper investigation shows an opposite result? Will Holder or Sharpton or any of those who cried foul somehow make up for their overly exercised mouths?

Notice when an African American cop killed a white teen there was no cry for racial justice to be served. Why not? Is it perhaps there is no preconceived notion that when a Caucasian is killed by a man of color that it is racially motivated?

More than twenty years have passed since the Civil Rights Act became the law of the land. We are living during the second term of this country’s first African American commander in chief, and yet the racial card continues to be played. While private people may continue to act out some racial prejudices, governmental institutions are always held accountable and found guilty if and when they do. There is no room for racism in the United States. When a sad event as the killing of Michael Brown occurs, to insist that this act reflect racism is not based on knowledge, but on assumptions built on premises that have long ago fallen from the consciousness of most Americans.

The investigation of Brown’s death must be complete and open to public scrutiny. If his killer was as wrong as the media suggests, he must be charged with murder and be tried in court as is mandated not only by our Constitution, but by the Declaration of Independence that was the first document published to reflect the American perspective on justice.

And guilty or not, insidious comments as those of Holder, Sharpton and others must be censured. As Proverbs teaches, life and death are controlled by the tongue.