We’ve witnessed time and again how collective outcry can ignite change. And when it comes to police misconduct and racially motivated crimes, the public’s voice is a formidable force with the power to tip the balance toward accountability.
Too often, authorities will let sleeping dogs lie until they’re jolted into action by the relentless demands of a vigilant public. In this article, we reflect on five poignant cases where public pressure led authorities to take a second look at whether justice was truly served.
In August 2019, the community of Aurora, Colorado, was shaken when police killed 23-year-old Elijah McClain. McClain, known for his gentle demeanor, was walking home from a convenience store when he was stopped by the police.
The situation escalated rapidly, with officers applying a carotid hold and paramedics administering ketamine, a powerful sedative. As a result, McClain suffered cardiac arrest, was declared brain dead, and passed away a few days later.
The initial response from authorities was tepid, with no immediate charges filed against the officers involved. What followed, however, was a testament to the power of public advocacy.
A wave of public outrage, fueled by social media campaigns and street protests, swept across the nation. People demanded justice for McClain, refusing to let his story be another forgotten statistic.
According to CNN coverage of this case, “Prosecutors initially declined to bring charges, but the case received renewed scrutiny following the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests in spring 2020. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis appointed a special prosecutor to reexamine the case, and in 2021, a grand jury indicted three officers and two paramedics in McClain’s death.”
This groundswell of public pressure led to a re-examination of the case. Authorities were compelled to revisit the actions of the officers and paramedics involved and subsequently press charges.
In October 2014, 17-year-old Laquan McDonald’s life was cut short after Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke shot McDonald 16 times.
Initially, the police department’s narrative suggested McDonald had lunged at the officers with a knife—a narrative that was later proven to be misleading.
The true circumstances surrounding Laquan McDonald’s death remained shrouded until a court-ordered release of the dashcam footage over a year after the incident. This release wasn’t voluntary; it resulted from relentless public demand for transparency and accountability.
The dashcam footage revealed that McDonald was moving away from Van Dyke at the time the officer fired the shots.
CNN reports that “…the investigative report from Inspector General Joseph Ferguson reveals the full extent of what his office described as an elaborate cover-up by 16 officers and supervisors, including former police officer Jason Van Dyke, who fired the shots.”
This footage and cover-up sparked widespread demonstrations in Chicago, prompting an investigation by the Department of Justice. The 2017 report by the Justice Department demanded extensive reforms within the department, citing instances of excessive force and violations of civil rights.
In the end, the incident resulted in the firing of the police chief and the charging of Van Dyke with second-degree murder, for which he was later convicted.
In February 2020, the nation was confronted with the case of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old man whose routine jog in a neighborhood in Glynn County, Georgia, ended in a brutal and racially-motivated attack.
Arbery was chased, shot, and killed by Travis McMichael, his father, Gregory McMichael, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan. The McMichaels claimed they suspected Arbery of burglaries in the area.
This case might have escaped national attention if not for a critical turn of events: the release of a video depicting the incident. The video went viral and ignited widespread public outrage and calls for justice.
It starkly contrasted with the initial delayed response from local authorities, who had not made any arrests in the weeks following Arbery’s death. The surge of public pressure led to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation taking over the case, resulting in the arrest and eventual conviction of all three men for murder.
The New York Times reported, “The Arbery trials — in state and federal court trial — were among the most closely watched proceedings with civil rights overtones in the United States since the April murder conviction of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who was captured in a bystander video kneeling on the neck of another unarmed Black man, George Floyd, for roughly nine minutes.”
In December 2020, Andre Hill was fatally shot by Columbus, Ohio police officer Adam Coy. Hill, unarmed and visiting a family friend, encountered the officer who was responding to a non-emergency call about a noise complaint.
The situation escalated rapidly, with the officer shooting Hill four times without any form of de-escalation or warning—a response that raised serious questions about the use of lethal force in law enforcement. Hill was unarmed.
In the immediate aftermath, there were no significant consequences for the officer involved. However, the public response to Andre Hill’s shooting was swift and unequivocal.
Community members and activists demanded justice, calling for accountability and transparency in the investigation. The outcry led to tangible results: the officer was terminated from the police force and eventually indicted on charges of murder.
The trial remains postponed as of April 2023 after Coy was diagnosed with cancer.
For decades, Burge’s reign as a police commander was synonymous with the torture of predominantly Black men, extracting false confessions and condemning them to unjust incarcerations.
Yet, in the face of such despair, a movement arose. The emergence of groups like the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (C.E.D.P.) and the Death Row 10 marked the beginning of a concerted effort to dismantle this machinery of injustice.
These organizations ignited a city-wide, and eventually, a national conversation about racial injustice in the criminal justice system. By sharing harrowing tales of torture survivors, these groups brought the human cost of Burge’s actions into sharp focus, transforming abstract statistics into visceral, undeniable truths.
Central to this was Mary Johnson, an 85-year-old mother whose son languished in prison due to a coerced confession. Her decision to file a civil complaint against Burge was a profound act of defiance.
The relentless advocacy and protests eventually bore fruit. The governor’s decision to halt all executions and review death penalty cases was a monumental victory. It was a testament to the power of sustained, collective action in effecting policy change.
The movement’s decision to take this issue to international platforms, drawing parallels with the Abu Ghraib scandal, was a stroke of strategic genius. It exposed the hypocrisy of a nation quick to decry torture abroad while ignoring it within its borders.
Burge’s eventual conviction and sentencing, though a significant milestone, was not the end of this struggle. It served as a stark reminder of the systemic failures that allowed such atrocities to occur unchecked. While it provided a sense of justice, it also underscored the need for continued vigilance and action to ensure such abuses can occur no more.
Public pressure and advocacy play a crucial role in holding institutions accountable and ensuring that justice prevails—even in the face of initial resistance. At the Law Office of Jordan Marsh, we are committed to this pursuit of justice, especially in cases of police misconduct and cases of civil rights violations.
If you or someone you know believes they have been the victim of police misconduct (which could mean anything from police planting evidence and wrongful conviction to excessive use of force), we encourage you to reach out.
Schedule a free consultation with us to discuss your case. Let us lend our expertise and experience to your cause, ensuring your voice is heard, and your rights are protected. Together, we can continue the fight for justice and accountability.