Standing at a rally in front of the home where Atlanta senior citizen Kathryn Johnston was shot and killed by police serving a "no-knock" drug warrant after she opened fire on the intruders, the Rev. Al Sharpton on Sunday called for congressional hearings into the police killing of civilians. The case of Johnston, who was killed November 21, along with that of Sean Bell, the New York City man gunned down by police on his wedding date a few days later, and the case of Patrick Strickland, the North Carolina man killed by police investigating the robbery of a Playstation3, have once again put the simmering issue of police violence on the front burner.
"Something stinks in this case. And something stinks to high heaven," Sharpton said. "In fact, it smells so bad, I smelled it in New York and came to Atlanta this morning." Sharpton condemned "this new sense of police recklessness, whether it is a 88-year-old mother here in Atlanta, with questionable circumstances that led to the warrant that gave them entry into her home, or whether it is over 50 bullets shot at three unarmed men in Queens," said the prominent black activist and former presidential candidate.
"There seems to be a new spirit in law enforcement that they can become the judge, jury and executioner of the law on the scene," Sharpton said. "Police apprehend suspects; they don't kill them. This cannot be tolerated in a civilized society."
While the Justice Department is conducting investigations of both the Johnston and Bell killings, Sharpton said they were only the latest in a pattern of killings and individualized inquiries were not enough. "The pattern is not under investigation," Sharpton said. "They are investigating whether there was criminal activity. The pattern of policing, which should be set by the US Congress in a federal standard, is not going to come out of either one of those investigations."
Sharpton said he had been talking with US Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), the incoming head of the House Judiciary Committee about holding hearings on what he called a national pattern of police shootings. He isn't the first to ask Conyers to act on the issue. Outgoing US Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) sent Conyers a letter last week asking him to hold hearings.
According to the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, police kill between 300 and 400 people each year. After peaking at nearly 450 police killings of civilians in 1994, the number declined to just over 300 in 2000 before climbing again to about 370 last year. Only a tiny fraction of police killings are found by police to be questionable; most are found to be "justifiable homicides." In only a tiny fraction of cases are officers indicted in a killing, and then, only a tiny fraction are convicted.