Civil Liberties

Who Cares About Miriam Carey?

The epidemic of police violence in America is largely ignored


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The story of a shooting on Capitol Hill last Thursday unfolded in the typical way. Reports of "shots fired" led to speculation of a mass shooter. Local police, in this case the U.S. Capitol Police (USCP), ordered a lockdown "requiring" members of Congress and their staff to "shelter in place." The news gathered through Twitter. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), for example, tweeted the entire message from Capitol Hill security: "Gunshots have been reported on Capitol Hill requiring all occupants in all House Office Buildings to shelter in place. Close, lock and stay away from external doors and windows," the message began. It also insisted no one would "be permitted to enter or exit the building until directed by USCP". 

Another Congressman, Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.), got into some trouble for appearing to blame the "violent rhetoric" of President Obama and other Democrats for the shooting. Attempting to do some damage control, before any facts were known, Griffin excused his comments by saying he had "tweeted out of emotion." He texted a response to BuzzFeed: "The shooting today is a terrible and inexcusable tragedy and an act of terrorism. No one but the shooter is to blame."

But the only shooters in last Thursday's incident, despite the reaction by Capitol police and members of Congress, were Capitol police officers themselves. Miriam Carey, the woman they shot, was unarmed. Police say she tried to ram a barricade (an "outer perimeter" fence, or checkpoint) in front of the White House before speeding off, leading police on a chase through Washington, D.C.

How did the District of Columbia's chief of police describe the behavior of cops who shot an unarmed woman to death in front of her one-year-old daughter because she tried to hit a barrier and reportedly knocked over a Secret Service agent with her car? They "acted heroically." Jack Dunphy, an LAPD officer who blogs pseudonymously, admitted Carey "was neither a terrorist nor a hardened criminal," before adding that, nevertheless, police couldn't have known that because "[w]hen she fled from that initial encounter, rather than drive into a random neighborhood in Northwest Washington, she drove straight to the Capitol." Dunphy calls Carey's car a 3,600-pound "weapon." After being shot at, Dunphy points out she went "skirting the Capitol grounds" before getting a block away from the Supreme Court. What reasonable officer, asks Dunphy, would not think a terrorist attack was taking place?

After Carey was shot and killed, a task force including the FBI and local police in Connecticut, where Carey lived, raided her home and began an investigation into the dead mother. They were not able to find any "nexus" to terrorism.

In 1976, a man named Chester Plummer was shot trying to scale the White House fence. The Nation's Rick Perlstein compared the response now to the more muted response then, pointing out "how much more frantically we respond to scary stuff than we did in decades past."

While apologizing for the poor timing of his tweet, Griffin defended his belief that "violent rhetoric only coarsens our culture." But what about violent actions? Nearly every mass shooting picked up by the media is taken up by anti-gun pundits and politicians as evidence that American citizens' right to self-defense ought to be abrogated in the name of safety. But there was no Piers Morgan special on CNN about Miriam Carey and the plague of police shootings. In fact, data on "officer-involved shootings" is rare to come by. The Department of Justice, for example, collects data on the use of force by police and complaints about excessive use of force, but does not release the number of police shootings or fatalities. In its fairly comprehensive collection of crime statistics, the FBI even includes totals for the number of police officers almost every town in America has. But it does not ask those police departments to let it know how many people they've killed in the line of duty, even as the Department of Justice runs a "roll call" honoring lawmen killed in the line of duty that includes slave catchers from the 19th century.

Police shootings like that of Miriam Carey happen on a regular basis. Carey's may have remained a local news story, like the shooting of Jack Lamar Roberson, whose fianc√© said she called 911 to get him an ambulance, or 107-year-old Monroe Isadore, who did not want to leave his bedroom, or Alex DeJesus, shot in the head while fleeing a police drug sting, had it not entered the news cycle as "shots fired" on Capitol Hill. Other police shootings, like that of Jonathan Ferrell, who was looking for help after an early morning car accident, may make it to the national news cycle. Ferrell's case was notable because the cop involved was quickly charged with voluntary manslaughter. The cop's probable cause hearing, originally scheduled for Monday, has been delayed. And these cases are just a sample. None of them are household names, and neither is Miriam Carey's. Some, like DeJesus, who was selling drugs, and Isadore, who reportedly shot at police, can be easily excused by police apologists as having "had it coming." In cases like Jack Roberson, who was likely having some kind of diabetic attack, police will say they felt threatened (they claim Roberson had two unidentified weapons in hand).

And in every case, as Dunphy noted in his Miriam Carey blog post, police will say they acted reasonably based on the facts known to them at the time. Officer Dick Haste, who shot and killed 19-year-old Ramarley Graham in his grandmother's bathroom in the Bronx after chasing him over a marijuana purchase, had his indictment thrown out after successfully arguing the grand jury should have been informed that he was told by other officers that Graham had a gun. Graham did not have a gun; the grand jury failed to re-indict Haste, and no one ever even mentioned what kind of criminal charges his colleagues might have to face for providing him with wrong information that led to someone being killed.

Even when there are politicians who take up the cause of victims like Ramarley Graham, they turn a blind eye to the root causes of police violence. Bronx city councilman Andy King, for example, blames Graham's death on racial profiling, even as he continues to push police to be more aggressive in pursuing the drug trade in his neighborhood, where Graham was shot and killed.

But sometimes victims of police violence haven't been racially profiled. Sometimes they're white. Sometimes police can't even manufacture a potential crime to pin their shooting on. When 24-year-old Seth Adams was shot in the parking lot of his family's business by an undercover police officer who was loitering there, police said Adams "decided to assault the deputy." Adams' family say he was worried because he saw someone in the parking lot of his family's business after hours. The police later said the deputy, Michael Custer, was involved in a surveillance operation unrelated to the Adams' family business. Broward County Sheriff Rick Bradshaw dismissed the incident by commenting that "there's only two witnesses here: the suspect and the deputy. And the suspect was not able to be interviewed." The sheriff claimed the investigation would "verify" everything he already knew about a situation he was not a witness to. The shooting of Seth Adams was eventually ruled justified.

As for Miriam Carey, authorities haven't even announced any kind of investigation into her shooting*. And why should they, when D.C.'s police chief already determined the shooting was heroic? Who cares about Miriam Carey?

*Update: Barnstormer notes the Washington Metro PD is leading an investigation into the shooting.