Police brutality is in the news, thanks to the widespread availability of amateur video and the omnipresence of security cameras.
We’ve seen scene after scene of police beating the crap out of, and even shooting and killing unarmed or minimally dangrous students, women, old men and crazy people, many of them after they have been handcuffed and checked for weapons.
The police brass, and leading politicians who oversee the departments involved, nearly always have the same answer: This is not the norm, these are isolated incidents, police violence is not on the rise. Rarely is an abusive or murderous officer punished or even administratively disciplined for documented crimes.
The thing is, of course, it is on the rise. Just as the exonerations of supposed murders and rapists are only those where there was DNA available to prove their innocence, while many more are also clearly wrongly facing death or long prison sentences, the scenes of brutality we’re seeing on the videos are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg too. What is different is that we’re seeing these things at all. It used to be that getting videos of police brutality was very rare — like the taping of the notorious police assault on the prone body of Rodney King by Los Angeles cops during a traffic stop. It just happened that someone with a video camera was at the scene when it occurred. Nowadays everyone with a cellphone is a potential videographer, so we’re seeing more of what really goes on when police make their arrests.
Just check out the latest video of LAPD officers body slamming a 5’4″ nurse (two times!) who had the audacity to get out of her car when they stopped her for talking on her cell phone while driving (this particular video was taken by a surveillance camera at a store focussed on the parking lot where police had followed the woman’s car). Note that one of the burly cops slamming this small handcuffed woman to the ground and later fist-bumping to celebrate with his younger partner holds the rank of commander — he’s a 20-year veteran of the LAPD.
Or check out this video of four LAPD cops on top of a 19-year-old (black) student stopped for skateboarding on the wrong side of the street. After he was down and handcuffed he was punched in the face by a cop, breaking his nose and cheekbone. This for a very minor offense, not even warranting an arrest, but just a citation.
But it’s not just Los Angeles. We also have videos like this one of a young woman stopped by a Pennsacola, Florida cop. In this case the cop was fired and jailed after his supervisor viewed the video, taken by the camera on the cop’s own car. This case was unusual. The woman filed no complaint about the abuse, probably figuring it would be pointless. But in a standard review of the officer’s video footage, the incident was spotted and referred up the chain to the department chief, Chip Simmons, who was outraged at the treatment of a handcuffed woman.
Much worse was the killing, by six Saginaw, Michigan cops, of a troubled homeless man who had called 9-11 after an argument with a shop attendant. Standing far from the cops, and holding a small knife, he was shot, apparently, judging from the video, as he was walking away from the officers, who hit him with a volley of 46 shots, killing him. This video was taken by someone in the parking lot who had a cell phone. Two months later, the local DA is still allegedly claiming to still be “investigating” that tragic incident.
The thing we need to all recognize is that these videos are just the incidents that have been captured on video. They clearly reflect something that is going on all the time, usually without any video to record it, or often even without any eye witnesses.
Police in too many departments are out of control. Too many departments are allowing their uniformed and armed cops to act as though they are an occupying army. Many of the younger cops may even have come from military duty in Iraq and Afghanistan where they actually were acting as an occupying army since in many jurisdictions there is a preference given to hiring such veterans. That would be fine if those veterans were put through training programs to make clear to them that there is a fundamental difference between war and policing, and that the public here at home is not the enemy, but I sincerely doubt that that is being done in most police departments. Indeed, given the mindless hanging of the appellation “hero” on everyone who wears or once wore a military uniform in our current war-obsessed culture, veterans who become cops are probably seen as ideal for the job.
The attitude of being occupiers and in a state of war with the people being “policed” is enhanced by politicians who call for tough policing, and by the Pentagon, which is handing out military equipment to police like candy to trick-or-treaters. Police are routinely armed with M-16s in their squad cars. We all saw the result of this kind of militarization of the police in the ease with which police in cities across the country, from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles to Portland and points in between became paramilitary goons in attacking peaceful Occupy Movement protesters with everything from tear gas cannisters and rubber bullets to mace or pepper spray aimed point blank into faces.
Or look at what happened when a whacked and sacked employee in New York City staked out a spot near his former employer and executed a supervisor he felt had gotten him fired. Two cops on the street, when he turned towards them still holding his gun, fired 16 shots from their service revolvers at him on the crowded street, killing him but also injuring nine innocent bystanders. (Reportedly 10 of the officer’s rounds hit the guy they were aiming at, and six went wild, which I’d say is too many to have fired under the circumstances, with dozens of people, including children, in the line of fire.) As Michael S. Lamonsoff, an attorney representing Robert Asika, one of the wounded bystanders who is suing the city, told the Village Voice, “We believe that there were too many rounds fired under the circumstances, and perhaps there should be more of an exploration of whether these officers had the proper training.”
We can call what they did a panicky reaction to having a man with a gun point it at you, but we need to expect better of our police than panic. These were men who at least should have been wearing bullet-proof vests, making them much better protected than all the people on the sidewalk they were sworn to protect. Even if they had felt the need to protect themselves by firing at the gunman, they were clearly putting the public at grave risk by firing 16 shots at him. What it looks like they did is a version of the military response known as “spray and pray” by army troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. It means firing off everything you’ve got if a bullet is fired your way. It’s deadly, and it’s an inappropriate tactic in an urban setting even in war time. It’s even more outrageous in the middle of midtown Manhattan at the morning rush hour.
What is happening to this country?
I’m sure all the Republican yahoos in the Tampa Convention Center who called out for the dotty old Clint Eastwood to reprise his famous and overused “Dirty Harry” line of “Go ahead, make my day!”, and who shouted out the line enthusiastically as he offered it up for them at the end of his painfully embarrassing 12-minute ramble, think that all this police violence is just fine.
But it’s not. Police officers are not Dirty Harry. They are supposed to be trained professionals tasked with protecting the public, not putting them in even worse jeopardy. I keep coming back to firefighters, who in my book are true heroes. Would a firefighter pull down a house while people were inside, in order to put out a blaze without having to risk anything him or herself? Of course not! But police emptying their guns wildly at an armed man on a crowded street are doing the same thing, and they do it all too often without hesitation. That nobody was killed by police fire in the New York incident is simply a matter of dumb luck (as it is some bystanders were seriously injured by police bullets).
As I just wrote this past week, I was recently threatened with arrest and jail by a bullying cop from the town of Horsham, Pennsylvania for standing legally on the grass beside the road trying to hitchhike. I was serially lied to by the officer, who claimed that hitchhiking is illegal in the state (it’s only illegal if you stand on the road and the officer should have known, and surely did know this), which is bad enough, but to be threatened with arrest and jail for something that, even had I been in violation, gets you a citation and which carries a $35 fine (it’s just a summary offense), is simply outrageous. And suppose I had argued with this officer? He might well have cuffed me and then slammed me into the ground or into the side of his SUV before hauling me in on a charge of resisting arrest, and would anyone have been surprised?
Sadly no. This is law enforcement today in America.
There are plenty of good cops who take their work seriously, and do their job properly, but as some of those cops have told me themselves, there are also way too many who are just thugs in uniforms, and there are precious few chiefs of police, few district attorneys, and few mayors who have the political courage (exhibited by Chief Simmons in the Florida case above) to take them on, to punish abusive behavior and to demand that policing be about “protecting and serving,” and not about brutalizing those who are being confronted for alleged law-breaking.
The advent of cameras in the hands of the masses is a good thing (there’s a reason why so many cops illegally harass and even arrest or confiscate the cameras or cell phones of those who try to videotape or photograph their activities, as cops just doing their job should have no fear of cameras), but it won’t end the problem of rampant police brutality in America. Only a broad public demand for more civil and appropriate, constitutional and humane behavior by our police will accomplish that. If we don’t come together and make that demand, we continue a drift towards becoming a police state.
It’s a path along which the United State is already dangerously well advanced.