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How long before we recognize the atrocities of our times?

We need a better way of handling officer-involved killings

On Wednesday, a grand jury in Staten Island decided, despite clear video of the confrontation, that there was insufficient evidence that the police officer who wrapped his arm around Eric Garner’s neck broke any laws to warrant sending him to trial. 

That same day in Colorado, Gov. John W. Hickenlooper met with members of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe Native American tribes and apologized for a 150-year-old atrocity, the Sand Creek Massacre, in which U.S. soldiers murdered more than 160 people.

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FOR THE RECORD

An earlier version of this article laid blame for the massacre on the Colorado Territory militia, and implied it was similar to the National Guard. While the soldiers involved were Colorado volunteers, they were under the U.S. War Department's command.

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What is the connection, besides the day on which these two events occurred? The question that Hickenlooper’s apology raises about how long it will take society, and our political leaders, to recognize atrocities occurring before our very eyes.

Police work carries inherent risks. Men and women step into law enforcement careers knowing they may have some dangerous encounters, and they are trained for those potential confrontations. Though, excessively violent responses by some officers invites skepticism about the depth and quality of that training. Some skepticism is justified, too, about how dangerous police work actually is. Vice reports that truck drivers are twice as likely to get killed on the job as police officers, though there’s a difference in context. Truckers perform risky work as part of the economy. For police, it’s dangerous exposure in the public interest -- law enforcement.

Still, as we’ve seen in Staten Island and Ferguson before that, and countless other non-prosecutions of police officers who kill, there is cause to find a better way to reach some element of justice in these deaths. Local police investigated by local prosecutors is a system seemingly designed to fail, given how closely local prosecutors and police work together, not to mention the inordinate local political power wielded by police unions.

We really need an independent review system, perhaps a new wing of the Department of Justice. At the very least, state-level offices with some removal from the local politics and cop-prosecutor relationships. Anything short of that will just feed the cynicism so many already feel toward the American criminal justice system. Especially when these current questionable actions by police coincide with a stream of exonerations of people wrongly convicted of crimes in past years.

As I’ve written before, it’s indicative of how little priority the federal government gives this problem when it doesn’t even bother tracking how often local and state police officers kill people, justified or not. President Obama spoke this week about the need to bring communities and their police forces closer together. He could help that along by ordering the Justice Department to collect that data along with its broader crime reporting.

These one-on-one killings do not, of course, equal the savagery of the Sand Creek Massacre. But they are atrocities nonetheless. Slate often posts about various domestic controversies in a satirical journalistic light, imagining how U.S. media would cover the story through the same lens it uses to cover overseas incidents:

"NEW YORK CITY, United States — The heavily armed security forces in this large and highly militarized country have long walked the streets with impunity, rarely if ever held accountable for violence committed against civilians. In recent weeks, however, several such incidents have ignited public anger and threatened to open new fault lines in a nation with a long and tragic history of sectarian violence.

"In America’s largest city, the judicial branch declined to pursue charges against a security officer who was videotaped in broad daylight choking a man to death. This came less than two weeks after courts in the nation’s often overlooked central region reached a similar decision in the shooting of an unarmed teenager. Both victims were members of the country’s largest minority group, and the killings have set off nationwide protests that have often escalated into clashes between dissidents and the security forces."

That's a telling bit of detachment and, as with most good satire, it reveals a truth: As a nation, we are not properly confronting this deadly problem. At some point -- this would be the time -- we have to fix this. And I hope it doesn't take 150 years for us to recognize an atrocity for what it is.

Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.

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