Perhaps you’ve heard about charges being dropped against most of last summer’s George Floyd protesters. Prosecutors from Oregon to New York have chosen not to pursue a host of different charges against those arrested after peaceful protests turned into destructive riots.
Outrageous, you might think. If someone commits the crime of looting, arson, property damage or physical assault they should do the time. What is wrong with these prosecutors!?
Well, it’s more complicated than that.
First, the latest non-prosecution news. In New York City – specifically, in Manhattan and the Bronx — police made hundreds of arrests during demonstrations last June. Officers then worked with prosecutors to build cases. But elected district attorneys make the final decisions on who actually gets prosecuted.
The New York results? Of the 485 arrests made in Manhattan last year 222 were simply dismissed, more may follow. In the Bronx, a full 60% of cases were dropped. Many of those who did go to court found their charges reduced to simple trespass, which carries no jail time.
Jessica Betancourt, the proprietor of an optical store badly damaged by looters, says, “The system has failed us.” She added that “there was no effort made by the city” to come to her store to gather fingerprints or see her surveillance video to help identify the guilty. It makes you wonder how hard police and prosecutors really worked to make criminal charges stick.
The same seemingly lackadaisical prosecution tactics have been exposed in other parts of the country. In Philadelphia and Dallas the number of abandoned cases reached 95%. Similar dismissal rates were found in Houston, Detroit, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Precise numbers in other beleaguered cities are hard to come by.
But here’s the deal. In the heat of the moment police were instructed to round up groups of disruptive protesters to try to control the violence. You’ve likely seen the videos of mobs of masked and unmasked marauders smashing windows, stealing goods, setting fires and outnumbered police trying to quell the disturbance.
To build a successful case prosecutors must prove which specific defendant committed which specific crime. Add in the fact that most of the lawlessness occurred under cover of darkness, and that makes video identification of suspects even more difficult. While some of those arrested might have been caught with merchandise in their hands, others might have just been passively standing nearby and got caught up in the process. See the problems?
Yes, crimes should have consequences and … those who act criminally must be punished. Otherwise, the message to the public is that it’s okay to repeat the bad behavior. But to expect prosecutors to try cases they don’t believe they can win – at a time when every DA’s office in America is facing a massive pandemic backlog of felony cases – well, it’s a quandary, isn’t it? Which type case should prosecutors focus upon – felonies that have lingered since before COVID-19 struck or these newer cases involving rioters? Please, don’t say they should prosecute “both” because there’s no state with enough money or manpower to do that.
Additionally, there is a corresponding development on the federal level. Remember when President Trump sent federal law enforcement officers to several cities to help address violent riots? Arrests were made.
A follow-up in just one city – Portland, the scene of more than 100 nights of protests – reveals the new administration’s Justice Department has dropped nearly half of the 96 cases. Protesters like Charles Comfort and David Bouchard, both charged with seriously assaulting officers, walked free. Despite all the federal prosecutors out there I could only find one person in Portland prosecuted by the feds. Edward Schnizing was dumb enough to get caught on video setting fire to the Justice Center and did so while shirtless and displaying his name tattooed on his back.
Perspective is needed. The feds drop cases against so-called civil rights protesters at the same time they are vigorously pursuing those arrested on Jan. 6 in and around the U.S. Capitol building.
It could, of course, be argued that breaking into and defacing the symbolic home of our republic is a more serious offense. But does it sort of smell of politics to you? Equal treatment under the law should be the standard.