So I was flying back from Chicago this past Wednesday and came across this story in USA Today about how 98% of emergency room doctors believe that their patients have been victims of police brutality which goes unreported. “How outrageous” I thought to myself. Most states require physicians to report suspected abuse of children, the elderly, and domestic violence, but not abuse by police officers. Why? I think I know the answer; because there is no outrage in this country when police officers engage in acts of brutality. The general public believes that our local police departments will protect us from violence, not inflict it upon us. Perhaps it is difficult for us to accept the idea that there are a fair amount of police officers who betray our trust. It happens all the time, and yet still there is no outrage, and in the absence of outrage we demand no greater accountability for police brutality.
Yesterday, I was driving home from work and heard this story on NPR about a shooting on New Year’s day in Oakland, California. There was scuffle, a 22 year old kid was handcuffed by the police, and then shot in the back by the officer. He’s dead of course, and too bad for the police that the whole thing was captured by cell phone videos. Sitting in my car, I could do nothing but shake my head in disbelief. So what happened next? Outrage, finally! NPR reports that:
Extra police were posted Thursday at Bay Area Rapid Transit stations after a group of angry demonstrators smashed storefronts late Wednesday, set fire to cars and clashed with officers equipped with riot gear and tear gas in downtown Oakland. More than 100 people were arrested and about 300 businesses were damaged.
Does it surprise you that this shooting led to outrage? I mean a police officer was caught on video executing a kid who was in handcuffs. This is murder, plain and simple. And this time, it caused outrage, and it shouldn’t surprise you that it was the young people who were outraged. It was teenagers and twenty-somethings who took to the streets to express their outrage over what has become so common in this country and what often goes unreported, just like the ER doctors are telling us. These acts of violence, both by the police and the protesters alike, should signal to our leaders and our legislators that it is well past time to address this issue with serious thought. How many video tapes of police brutality will it take to cause outrage beyond Oakland’s city limits?
As an attorney who handles police brutality and civil rights cases everyday, I can tell you that I am outraged every time I watch these videos, and I’ve watched a lot of them and handled a lot of these cases. Yet my outrage isn’t shared by others. I tell people how I have a new case with the police caught on video killing someone with their bare hands. There is hardly ever any outrage. People simply suspect that the police acted lawfully, they must have, right? We trust them. They wouldn’t betray us!
So again I ask you, how many more videos must we watch before we are outraged? Perhaps African Americans are the most common victims of police brutality and perhaps that is why there is no outrage outside the black community. What a disgrace. And again I’m outraged.
I, for one, am indeed outraged. I’m outraged at the hate speech and violent attitude toward police officers reflected in this opinion piece. Take a close look at the videos of the BART incident – the outrage was already present and active in the crowded platform as the officers were threatened, harangued, and taunted as they did a very routine and reasonable procedure for investigating a reported violent incident involving multiple persons. Clearly, the shot fired deserves scrutiny, but there is blood on the hands of everyone in the crowd that day who added to the threat against the officers prior to the horrific shooting episode.
As far as the ER doc survey, I can’t emphasize strongly enough how uninformative that study is. We could do research asking people their opinion about lots of things they didn’t see happen and get lots of opinions as a result. An uninformed or misinformed opinion is not fact and is no substitute for genuine, factual data. Use of force, as any lawyer should know, is entirely dependent for its justification on the context of the contact. Since the ER docs didn’t see the contact, didn’t see the context, and didn’t see the offender behavior, they have no reason to presume to know if force was appropriate or not. The actual text of the study (most people have only read the misleading and sensational headlines) arrives at very few and very weak conclusions.
As for mandatory reporting of suspected excessive use of force, the comparison between domestic violence and child abuse victims (who have an inherent right to be free from assault) to persons contacted by police is entirely misplaced. Suspects have a legal obligation to peacefully submit to police commands. Citizens contacted by the police have an entirely different social dynamic than to relationship violence victims; and there are many advocacy groups who for political or economic gain (such as the author of this blog) are quick to come to the defense of alleged victims. Victims have departmental, state civil and criminal, and federal civil and criminal penalties to bring against perpetrators of 4th amendment violations. Inciting and inflammatory rhetoric against law enforcement is as easy as typing a few lines. That hateful and simplistic response can only increase antagonism toward our public servants, potentially resulting in more resistance and more violence.
“Clearly, the shot fired deserves scrutiny?” Well, isn’t that generous and thoughtful of you, JFShultz! We’re all down here, mouths agape, patiently awaiting more of your crumbs of compassion and sound judgment.
You say that citizens “have a legal obligation to peacefully submit to police commands.” Citizens have an “entitlement” and a reasonable expectation to retain their very lives and limbs when contacted by the police, irrespective of “social dynamic,” or status as a “suspect.” To the extent that one develops a reasonable fear that he may be killed, maimed or otherwise injured by submitting to police, cooperating with police, coming into peacetime contact with police or complying with police commands, it seems to me that he is justified by evading or perceiving and handling all such contact as hostile. Clearly, this is not in the best interests of either law enforcement or the public.
I was among the first to blog about similar incidents embraced by the 11th circuit –fortunately not resulting in death– of a subdued persons being brutalized by our “finest.” (See my Sept. 11 and July 1st entries at http://www.knowyourcourts.com/News/2008-3Q.htm). Such police conduct and circuit court outcomes –not Fieger’s rants– expose law enforcement to the citizens’ justifiable contempt. Law enforcement can only gain from being able to limit the occasions for such contempt.
Agreed that police have a difficult job. But there are too many abuses of authority. When it crops up in the little things it’s sure to influence the big things. I see a trooper speeding through an “orange” light in my neighborhood, sirens and lights ablazing. Then only 3 blocks further — no siren, no lights, just on their way somewhere, endangering other drivers, without having had to take the time to stop at that traffic light. When I’m driving home from work late and get pulled over — no reason given. It leaves me to suspect we’re snooping for a DUI. It’s not a very friendly exchange — a disappointed officer in the wrong and an innocent, inconvenienced citizen. The common citizenry all appear to be viewed as either potential devils incarnate or potential meal tickets. If there’s no revenue in catching that child molester, we can catch timid Joe Schmoe without his seatbelt. And we’ve really served the community — up to the price of one ticket. Does the blame lay solely on the officers? Of course not — the reward system is cracked and doodoo always rolls downhill. But too many officers in too many ways take unfair advantage of a person’s “legal obligation to peacefully submit to police commands.” It might as well be translated, “Bend over, here it comes again.”
Several years ago, my cousin told me a story about this black guy (a friend of a friend, I think), who was just hanging out on the street. If I remember the story correctly, a white guy riding a bike had some drugs and the cops were after him. He dropped the drugs in front of the black guy and continued riding on. The black guy was arrested.