The Presumption of Guilt
By Bryan Stevenson
This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.
Too many people in America are burdened with a presumption of guilt. Their race, their ethnicity, their religion, their nationality, and sometimes their poverty is seen as indicia of danger, a basis for distrust or suspicion that marks them as someone to be feared, someone to be closely monitored.
If you’re black or brown, if you’re Muslim or Arab, if you’re Latino or foreign-born, you know what I’m talking about. The presumption of guilt generates suspicion, staring, distrustful glances when you’re in a store, in an airport or in a neighborhood that’s not your own. Many African-Americans have been coping with this burden for generations. Our parents taught us not to do certain things that were perfectly appropriate for our non-minority friends but were not safe for us.
Being presumed guilty is frustrating, burdensome, and exhausting. In the criminal justice system it can also be dangerous and life threatening. When police, prosecutors, or judges presume someone’s guilt, lives are destroyed and horrific injustices take place. We need to talk about this problem in the United States.
The police in Miami have not articulated any legitimate basis for jumping on 14-year-old Tremaine McMillian, throwing him to the ground, placing him in choke hold, terrorizing him until he urinated on himself. The assertion that he gave the officers “dehumanizing stares” or looked at them “menacing” is insupportable and even if he did what he’s accused of would not provide a proper basis to throw him to the ground and arrest him. Prosecuting him for a felony makes a bad situation worse and is a misguided effort to legitimate, indefensible and discriminatory misconduct by the officers involved. Not immediately dismissing these charges deepens the injuries that this child, his family and community must suffer.
The known facts surrounding the Tremaine McMillian case suggest that the police officers involved are people who feel threatened, who feel on the defensive, who feel at-risk and vulnerable, and who are looking to respond disproportionately even to the most subtle of apparent threats. When a police officer or a police department has such a relationship with a community, things can go bad very quickly. The police will feel suspicious of everyone—even a 14-year-old kid with a white puppy on a beach—and presume guilt for something because they feel threatened by the way these people look, the way they talk, the way they act, the way they move.
No community, no person, no group, no religious minority, no racial minority wants to feel that the police are their adversaries. The police deserve respect. But they are not people to whom anyone of any race or creed has to kowtow like a supplicant. They are not a privileged elite who, if provoked even in the slightest way, have the right to lash out violently without justification. The police are public servants charged with protecting public safety, a very difficult job. We need them to reduce tensions in communities and resolve conflicts between people. We rely on them to manage dangerous situations and contend with people who have committed criminal acts, including violent acts, a difficult job that merits our deepest appreciation.
However, the complexity of their job can not be a license to prey on people who are minorities or to victimize people unfairly. Police must contend with persons who have committed criminal acts, including violent criminal acts. Police officers should not be trawling for opportunities to arrest people who happen to question how a police officer is acting or who happen to glance at a police officer in a way that the officer assumes to be “dehumanizing.”
The police department’s behavior in the McMillian case undermines the integrity of our criminal justice system and contributes to the contempt and distrust of law enforcement that is already too prevalent in many communities. We all suffer when police are legitimately feared as villains who harass and terrorize innocent people with impunity, especially young men of color.
The charges against Tremaine McMillian should be dismissed and the police department should apologize for unnecessary and abusive behavior. They should apologize to Tremaine and his family but they should apologize to the rest of us as well. The safety of police officers and the safety of residents are not mutually exclusive. Everyone’s safety is improved when people are treated with respect and without a presumption of guilt.
UPDATE: On July 16, a Miami court dropped all charges against Tremaine McMillian.
Bryan A. Stevenson is a member of the U.S. Programs Advisory Board