The public displays of police brutality caught on tape are stark, violent, gut wrenching, heart breaking, and indicative of an age old problem of us and them politics. It used to be such rawness wasn’t seem by most of us in main stream society, because it was done to “other” people secreted away in “their” communities and never under the omnipotent eye of video cameras but times have certainly changed and today can police brutality smack us in the face as powerfully as it does the victim at the end of an officers arm, baton, taser, gun.
The most egregious example of brutality involved an EMT with a patient on the way to a local hospital in Oklahoma. There’s a video on youtube if you can bear to watch it without hurling either your lunch/breakfast/dinner or your computer through the nearest window. In that video an Oklahoma highway patrol officer berates the EMT driver for not pulling over while he, the trooper tried to pass. The video was shot by a family member of the patient riding in the ambulance. In that video you can see the victim of the police brutality calmly tell the family member who was shooting the video to remain calm, not interfere with the patrolman, stay out of the way, don’t do anything to provoke the officer and let the EMT people handle it. The person giving this advice was the one assaulted by the officer, who literally had both hands around the neck of the technician! It was like watching a legal lynching, and given the characters and setting it probably felt that way for many who saw the incident. The EMT, Maurice White had done nothing to provoke this officer who felt justified in trying to restrain him by choking him?
Another widely publicized example of brutality where size, experience, weight were far more on the side of the law enforcement officer than the victim is the case of Malika Calhoun, a teenager who was pummeled by a King County sheriff’s deputy, Paul Schene in Seattle, Washington, because she was “lippy” an offense for which police assault is most likely NOT the punishment. The video can be seen at the link below.
One wonders whether the offending officer treats women as callously in his social reactions with them as he did in this professional encounter with a teenaged girl. Regardless there is no excuse for such excessive physical force and one can only hope the officer is relieved of his duties permanently.
What is distressing is in each of the examples mentioned above, the offending officer had a partner with him who did nothing to restrain him, or even is not responsible for revealing the brutality to their superiors or the public in general. In both cases officers were caught by the unblinking eye of video cameras they either ignored or didn’t realize were present filming their indiscretions. In many cases, therefore, I would assert the partners of the offending officers are just as responsible for the brutality we see as the assaulting officer himself, and should be disciplined as well.
How does this get to the us and them theme of my title? There has always been this idea among law officers that they were the last bulwark against a marauding public hell bent on destroying all we hold dear….almost the same thing said about the Muslim hordes we’ve told we must detest and distrust. Police who got carried away in the performance of their duties were exempt from punishment and their excesses were viewed with a blind eye, or a wink and a grin by superior officers because cohesion of the “force” was more important than the rule of the law. The public that these offices were sworn to protect and serve were all too often the victims of these officers who found purpose in protecting one another from “them” the public. There was nothing to restrain them, except an all too infrequent application of the rule of law against them. In some cases that worked, however! Witness Norm Stamper’s claims.
Forty-three years ago I was an idealistic, vaguely liberal 21-year-old when the San Diego Police Department hired me. The last thing on my mind was taking to the streets to punish people. And lest there be any doubt about the department’s policy, the police academy, even then, drove it home: excessive force was grounds for termination.
So, why did I abuse the very people I’d been hired to serve?
Not to get too psychological, I did it because the power of my position went straight to my head; because other cops I’d come to admire did it; and because I thought I could get away with it. Which I did–until a principled prosecutor slapped me upside the head and demanded to know whether the U.S. Constitution meant anything to me.
It comes down to this: real cops, those with a conscience, those who honor the law, must step up and take control of the cop culture.
The turnaround for this officer was the application of the law AGAINST him, not by him, for his illegal activity; that was all that was needed to get him to see the error of his ways, and likely spare a lot of innocent people from his lawlessness. This brings me to the present and where we are as a country. We pride ourselves in being a country where the rule of law reigns supreme, is equally applied to all and insures a social harmony that preserves our values and way of life. That said, we should see and insist the rule of law apply to lawless law enforcement officers as well as lawless politicians, no matter how high they are in the political hierarchy. Doing so preserves our way of life as vigorously as fighting terrorists on foreign soil. This notion that we have to aggressively fight an external foe that means us harm in ways that are universally considered illegal with no legal consequences to us is the type of hubris which causes nations to disintegrate, diminish and disappear over time at varying rates of speed. The polarization of such a society into those who are the enforcers and those who are the victims of that enforcement leads to civil unrest and violence, certainly anathema to our ‘way of life’, yet both sides would claim vociferously they are defending it! There is no other recourse than the unwavering application of the law against all who break it. Doing so restores confidence in all to the principles which this country was founded, and gives meaning to those who’ve sacrificed for it.