July 3, 2008

Ronnie White and Due Process

The case of Cpl. Richard Scott Findley and Ronnie White in Prince Georges County, Maryland, is heartbreaking and disturbing. While the facts remain somewhat unclear, what we do know is enough to sow painful discord between the citizens of that jurisdiction and their police department for a long time to come. A black man accused of killing a white police officer is murdered while in custody. The fact pattern is familiar, and, predictably, public discussion is focusing a great deal on race, as it usually does when a police brutality case seizes our attention. Race surely matters, but so, too, does a subject rarely mentioned in this cultural context: civic education.

I write this on the eve of July 4, a day to celebrate our independence. It is also a day to celebrate a host of ideas of what it means to be American. A cornerstone of this country's greatness is its faith in due process for all, no matter one's status in society, no matter one's race or creed or country of origin. By all accounts, Findley, the beloved officer who White was accused of killing, was a man with a passion for service and justice. That his death appears to have been avenged with unlawful brutality discredits the PG County police department and causes one to ask whether our law enforcement officers have sufficient reverence for the U.S. Constitution and the criminal justice system.

In truth, the same question should be asked of society as a whole. Americans seem to know precious little about their own public institutions and history. (In 2006 a Zogby poll estimated that more Americans can name the Three Stooges than can name the three branches of our federal government.) For many people, I suspect, justice is a kind of media show, a series of trials-of-the-century spun as morality tales that seldom reveal the complex nature of our criminal justice system or the bedrock principles on which it is based. Cases like the murder of Ronnie White should remind us that American justice is founded on ideas, and unless those ideas are understood, respected and cherished by those charged with enforcing the law, we are continually in danger of losing our way.

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