Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Police Brutality....

Rears its ugly head again. Check here for the LATimes article (with accompanying video so you can decide for yourself), or click here for the CNN version if you don't want to give up your information to get onto the LA Times site.

I am conflicted about police brutality. In some respects, I think that it probably happens far more than we are led to believe by police departments, I think it is probably a fairly natural outgrowth of an increasingly militaristic, don't question authority, police can do whatever they feel they want to in their war on (fill in the blank with your pet war, such as drugs, here). Police have been given fairly limitless authority to do what they want, they almost never get fired for their actions, or otherwise disciplined, and when they do get disciplined, it frequently gets reversed by the chief or some board after the police union causes a big fuss. The punishments meted out are almost always far less severe than those given to regular folk in a similar situation, and certainly far less than poor minority folk in such a situation (before you howl that "regular" folk can never be in the same situation as police, read on before you dash off that angry email or comment). Finally, when some local prosecutor gets the cajones to actually file on a cop, they usually stick worthless DA's on the case, or don't give them complete resources to do this right, or rely on the same police department to assist them in the prosecution, usually resulting in major sabotage. And, last but not least, you can always expect the most compliant of judiciaries when you are a police officer. All this stuff I've written over the last few months about judges being DAs in robes, or the prison industrial complex ensuring people get convicted - well, ignore it when police are the defendants. Actually, don't igore it, remember it well, then reverse it, because everything is about to change. Rulings are terrific, judges help out in any way (consider the Rampart case where the judge actually threw out the convictions that miraculously took place despite her best attempts to get acquittals), or reversals on appeal happen (the only case where the Supreme Court has held District Courts may ignore mandantory minimums that stick people in prison for 20 years for a couple of pot plants is the case of King beaters Koon and Powell).

On the other hand, I am conflicted a little bit. First of all, we live in a society that is increasingly under surveillance, be it with surveillance cameras, people carring cheap and small camcorders that can record what happens easily, ATM cameras.... (you get the point). I have to assume that quite a large amount of cases of brutality are probably caught on camera in some form or fashion. I have no idea of percentages, and it is certainly something that can be kept under wraps quite easily in many cases, but always? No chance (as seen in this video). Furthermore, police will say, and I actually agree, that we can never understand what it is like to walk in their shoes for a day. It's easy to walk in their shoes for a split second - that moment where they do the objectionable activity like whack someone a bunch of times in the head with a flashlight, but for the whole day, seeing all of the things that lead up to that, the numerous split decisions that they have to make on a daily basis, many of which could result in their death. This situation probably makes it hard for me to be a perfect judge. Furthermore, while regular citizens don't normally have to engage angry, hostile and well-armed people on a regular basis, resulting in serious confrontations, police officers do, and they must make those quick, instant decisions that can be the difference between life and death.

This is why I'm conflicted. I see very good arguments on both sides, and I recognize both have much truth to them. That being said, my belief that police officers have tough jobs that I can't fully appreciate does not mean that I don't believe I can make judgements about their job. Here's the rub - enough officers do a great job without using brutality, just like enough interrogations of terrorists take place where information is retrieved to convince me we should not torture, to suggest to me that police can avoid brutality, and that it is not that hard to spot in most situations. When police officers beat a handcuffed person, it's brutality. When someone is on the ground and no threat to those around him, he shouldn't be beaten. When a kid is handcuffed he should not be thrown facefirst onto the hood of a car. And, as in this video, when police have someone standing there compliant, raising his hands in surrender, going down on the ground in submission, they have no right to beat the crap out of him. I can't imagine a context in that situation which would call for whacking that person in the head with a flashlight, or kicking him in the head. Even if the context arose (out of his further resisting), this only arose because the police botched the situation.

Let's be serious here, in the incident that just took place, the guy raised his hands and began to get on his knees, how about waiting (one of the officers had his gun drawn, he could easily have used it the person made any quick, furtive movements)? There is no excuse to just go and take that person down, and the fact of the matter is, under any objective criteria, the officer went to a place of less safety by proceeding to tackle him when he was surrendering. There is no theory of safety that makes you more safe when you get closer to someone who could be dangerous, and you are armed, and his hands are in the air. It just doesn't make sense.

So, why did this happen? I can only guess one reason, that the officer knew that he would not suffer any punishment as a result. Consider this, the officer gets accepted to the academy, then goes through the academy, he gets hired on, probably passes his probation and gets promoted, probably also wants a career in the department, and he certainly has no desire to throw it all away. Thus, we have to look at the culture which suggests that this activity is acceptable, and that culture comes from the top down: an internal affairs unit that is guaranteed to whitewash any allegations of wrongdoing by "us" against "them," a court system which reflexively believes anything police say; a political system where the support of police uniforms guarantees victory, regardless of the idiocy of the position; local news shows which glorify everything about the police, in large part due to the fact that the police spoon feed them their bread and butter crime stories; and a population unwilling to ask questions.

Prediction: this too will pass. The involved officers will be defended immediately in the local press by the police brass, at the same time as they call out for everyone not to jump to conclusions, as a complete investigation will need to be conducted. The investigation will take a long time, but will be a whitewash, resulting in little or no action. Whatever action is taken against the officers involved will be minor, and they will get the benefit of every doubt that no other accused ever gets. On the other side will be the regular suspects calling for these officers' heads, holding protests, carrying signs, performing vigils. They will be painted as silly, and generally ignored.

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