Grand jury to look at Burns homicide

The sorry state of affairs between Minneapolis African Americans and the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) continues to worsen. The death of Christopher Burns during a struggle with police has been ruled a homicide. The sorry state of affairs between Minneapolis African Americans and the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) continues to worsen. The death of Christopher Burns during a struggle with police has been ruled a homicide. In related circumstance, federal mediation, agreed upon via City Council vote, to hopefully rectify relations between minority citizens and police, got off to a stalled start that shows signs of the whole process amounting to an MPD-undermined, absolute and complete waste of time.

It was determined and reported in the news that, in November, between Officers Mark Johnson and Lucas Peterson, at least one of them caused the death of Christopher Burns, possibly with the hold that was applied during the confrontation. A Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office investigation will go to the grand jury, which will determine if the homicide was justifiable in course of the police officers doing a dangerous job, or whether these cops broke the law.

If the police department’s account of what happened is factual, one must grant Johnson and Peterson the benefit of the doubt. The department’s version of the story is that Burns violently resisted being taken into custody when Johnson and Peterson responded to a report of a domestic dispute at an apartment in the 2300 block of Chicago Ave. South. According to the department, Burns went limp while the officers were struggling (presumably in accord with department protocol governing the use of force) to subdue him. If they were doing what they were supposed to do, it cannot be held against them that, as the medical examiner states, Burns had a history of high blood pressure with advanced coronary artery disease. How were they to know about his medical condition: it is wholly unreasonable to expect police to show up, face a suspect and, before acting, ascertain whether he is in good enough physical shape to undergo forcible arrest. In fact, one might bend over backward far enough to say if Burns was at such high-risk, it was his responsibility to just go along peacefully.

However, attorney Mark Peterson, representing both Burns’ fiancée (Bernadine McWhorter) and the couple’s daughter, said the McWhorter contradicts the police department’s account. According to her lawyer, McWhorter said she witnessed Burns being thrown to the floor while handcuffed and that she saw police put what she thought was a flashlight or baton to his neck and pull back. That, says Peterson, is when Burns went limp. Peterson says he believes Burns was murdered and that the medical examiner’s finding of homicide is consistent with his client’s account.

No one who wasn’t at the scene, of course, can jump to a knee-jerk conclusion and say either they know the cops flat-out killed this man or that they acted responsibly. Still, it is hard for anyone who has substantive experience with, or knowledge of, law-enforcement-Minneapolis-police-style (when it comes to dealing with Black people) to automatically give Johnson and Peterson the previously mentioned benefit of any doubt. In fact, one is inclined toward the opposite. This has nothing to do with these particular officers’ track records — which makes the matter all the more troublesome: they might well be conscientious, fair-minded professionals who make a steadfast practice of doing a tough job every bit as well as they find humanly possible.

But Minneapolis police (regardless of the cop’s skin color — I don’t know whether Johnson and Peterson are White) are widely known for behaving as though they relish the opportunity to brutalize Black people — women as well as men.

This is why the whole business of mediation is necessary to begin with.

It’s high time the City of Minneapolis either did its business or got off the pot. And, for that matter, Mayor R. T. Rybak needs to quit hopping from one side of the fence to the other a

December 23, 2002
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