Over the last two decades, cases of police brutality have become comparable to year-long media events, and the often fatal phenomenon has the power to traumatize on a massive scale. Whether a person is killed by an officer or not, and whether that officer is convicted or acquitted, hot waves of anger and fear flow through many American citizens on a daily basis. While a large portion of these events have become associated with racial discrimination, there are also many that can be attributed to the “shoot first, ask questions post-mortem,” approach.
Athens-Clarke County suffered a devastating blow in November 2019 when former sheriff’s deputy Winford Terrell Adams fatally gunned down University of Georgia graduate student Benjamin Lloyd Cloer. Convinced his wife Charlotte was having an affair with Cloer, Adams shot the graduate student multiple times before calling 911 to confess, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Charlotte Adams declared there was no affair and that Cloer was just her friend. Adams was fired, arrested and charged with murder. Currently, no word has been disclosed on the situation.
Thankfully, our county has set a good example by prosecuting Adams for Cloer’s murder, bringing some level of closure to his family and friends and ameliorating the trauma caused by Adams. Something similar happened with the 2015 shooting of Afghanistan war veteran Anthony Hill by former DeKalb County officer Robert Olsen. Though Olsen was acquitted of the murder in late 2019, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Nov. 1, 2019, for four felonies he committed before and after he killing Hill.
The punishment against Hill and Cloer should be the standard instead of the uncommon. Tensions have run high in the last few years due to numerous cases where officers who killed unarmed men and women were acquitted or never went to trial in the first place. Details of these encounters come under the scrutiny of the media, politicians and concerned members of the public. The resulting protests and movements have increased tension between those who want justice for the dead, and those who support the officers’ actions.
Outside of cases of officers committing murder are cases that can be described as acts of harmful incompetence: a Gwinnett County officer distracted by a YouTube video rear-ended a car on I-85, causing a four-car wreck, seriously injuring himself and putting the driver in a four-week coma that resulted in serious brain injuries. The officer was “demoted and prohibited from driving or operating a Gwinnett County vehicle for any reason.” This represents a mere slap on the wrist, and though nobody was killed, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold the officer accountable.
No matter the brutality or incompetence committed, a police officer not being punished to the full extent of the law does no good for our society, and only makes the suffering of those victimized by their actions more painful. Faith in the integrity of the law is diminished by what could be perceived as special treatment at best and systemic privilege at worst. Peaceful protests in response to these injustices often give violent individuals an excuse to riot. Families and friends are mentally and emotionally scarred for life, with some suffering physically to the point of death. If police authority and our nation’s prosecutors invest in fairer responses, as with the murders of Cloer, Hill and many others, we can mitigate future pain for families and communities.