America is being ripped apart right now by one video after another showing unarmed African Americans killed by police. The videos often turn into Rorschach Tests, with viewers seeing what they want to see; taken as a package, however, the depth of the problem is both obvious and undeniable.
Thank goodness we have the videos. Don’t take that for granted, because in plenty of places in America, the legal right to film police in public spaces is still under attack. You probably missed this story in all the other news of the week (Angelina and Brad!), but Connecticut state troopers confiscated a camera recently and — not realizing it was still recording — chatted openly with each other about how to trump up a charge on the citizen filming them. (More in a moment). Meanwhile, in some parts of America, local police are demanding DNA samples from citizens who aren’t even accused of crimes, and building gene databases of residents. Towns hide tax increases by levying crazy fines for small offenses, and in some cases, are bringing back debtors prisons.
To twist a phrase, police departments can only enforce the law with the consent of the governed. If you think the “us vs. them” problem applies only to racial profiling, you aren’t paying attention. Americans have let their law enforcement officials get away with far too much for far too long. All these things are symptoms of the same problem. Law and order America is out of control. Fear is used to justify atrocities large and small. If you don’t think there’s a problem with power-hungry cops, that just means it hasn’t been your turn yet.
But first, let me get this out of the way, In America today, it seems nearly impossible to hold two points of view at the same time. But that’s the only way to get to the truth. Cops are brave. Cops are abusive. Cops are life savers. Cops are power-hungry racists. All those things are, at times, true.
If you think all cops are bad, how do you deal with the cognitive dissonance stirred by video from this week showing first responders running to a bomb scene when everyone else is running away? Two officers were shot Monday when they encountered a man sleeping outside a bar in Linden, N.J. on Monday. He could have been just another homeless man or a vagrant. Instead he was a man who had tried to commit mass murder several times.
Cops do this dozens of times a day. Basic training teaches them that any “routine traffic stop” can land them in a coffin. It’s a reality that anyone hasn’t been in law enforcement can’t fully grasp. And cops save plenty of lives. A relative of mine dove at a would-be George Washington Bridge jumper this month, and prevented a suicide. All in a day’s work.
It’s a really, really hard job.
But that doesn’t mean cops should get any free passes to toy with the law. Right now, they get plenty.
Here’s how (some) cops behave when they don’t realize they are being watched. Connecticut resident Michael Picard was filming cops legally at a DUI check last year when state troopers approached him, told him filming was illegal, and seized his camera. After a back and forth, they took the device back to their patrol car and discussed what to do next. Unfortunately for the troopers, the camera was still rolling, and captured their conversation. One trooper said, “We gotta cover our ass.” Here’s how the ACLU, in a lawsuit, describes what happened next:
(State troopers) discussed whether they could charge Mr. Picard with any crimes, and one of the two suggested that any charge would suffice, saying, “let’s give him something.”
(One trooper said to another) “we do simple trespass, we do reckless use of the highway, and creating a public disturbance.” (Another) agreed.
(A trooper) said that the defendants should issue Mr. Picard a public disturbance charge, “then we claim that in backup we had multiple [motorists] stopped to complain about” a man waving a gun, “but that no one wanted to stop and give a statement.” (He) emphasized the words “then” and “multiple” when speaking, as if formulating the defendants’ cover story aloud.
Defendants … also discussed whether they should charge Mr. Picard with walking in the road for his presence (near the highway). The two agreed to do so.
When (a third tropper) returned to the discussion, the three discussed how many criminal infraction tickets Mr. Picard was going to receive, eventually settling on two.
If part of you is saying right now, “Of course cops invent trumped-up charges,” I want you to pause and think about that for a moment.
We’ve learned to put up with far too much, and accept far too little, from our sworn officers of the law.
The criminal complaints against the citizen have been dropped, and the ACLU is now suing the three state troopers. But a cop who trumps up a charge against an innocent citizen and admits it on video should be charged with a crime. Playing fast and loose with the law, as an officer of the court, is an abomination to our system of justice. It ruins the credibility of all cops.
It shows where we are, and how far we have to go.
I asked Connecticut officials to comment on the lawsuit, but I have not yet received a response. The Associated Press reported that Trooper Kelly Grant, a state police spokeswoman, “said an internal affairs investigation is active and referred other questions to the state attorney general’s office, which declined to comment.”
I’ve written before about the important role that cameras are playing in bringing bad cops to light. (Here’s a guide to both the law and the reality of filming law enforcement that I wrote for NBC. In short, it’s legal as long as you aren’t creating a disturbance, but legal and practical aren’t always the same thing).
As we move forward, cameras will continue to play perhaps the most important role in exposing abusive police behavior. Without the video of these cop killings, we almost certainly would never have heard about them.
Meanwhile, every informed American should read last week’s ProPublica story about cops in local police departments around America engaging in what’s being called “Stop and Spit.” In some places, cops are asking as many citizens as they can to swab their cheeks and volunteer some DNA that can be used in perpetuity to find criminals. Writer Lauren Kirchner begins with the story of a 15-year-old kid who cops swabbed, and his physician father, who spent more than a year trying to get the DNA sample destroyed. The FBI has been collecting DNA for a while from suspected criminals. But local police have begun grabbing genetic code from anywhere they can find it and logging it in databases owned by private corporations. Citizens who haven’t been arrested, in most cases, can refuse to give the sample. But saying no to cops is hardly easy; especially if you are 15.
One can imagine a big national discussion about DNA collection and crime. It makes me queasy, but an intelligent person could argue that it would make communities safer. We haven’t had that discussion, however. Stop and Spit is just happening; like trumped-up charges are just happening.
And 1,000 or so people each year are shot and killed by cops. While people of all races suffer that fate, many because they posed a direct threat to society, this important Washington Post story right-sizes the issue with data: unarmed African Americans are five times more likely to be shot by cops as unarmed white men. Overall, African Americans are 2.5 times as likely as whites to be shot by cops.
If you can’t see the problem, you aren’t looking. And if you don’t think it impacts you, just wait.
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