By Mark David Blum, Esq.
There was a kegger at the White House. Guzzling their favorite brews, the President and Vice President sat and listened to two very pissed off people vent their respective perspectives. Injecting himself into a national discussion and perhaps even a learning moment, the President involved himself and opined on a matter of local police practice.
So let us be clear. The arrestee, a Harvard professor and noted Black citizen, tired and drained from a trip home from China and struggling getting into his home came face to face with a police officer investigating a reported possible burglary. Indeed the arrestee gained entry into his home with a key and proved his identification as being the homeowner. But the arrestee couldn’t let things go. Showing racial bias against the police officer, the homeowner got mouthy and accused the police officer of acting out of racial bias against Blacks. The evidence bears out that this police officer is not of the ilk to target Blacks for police action. As the officer was leaving, the homeowner followed and words were continually exchanged between the citizen and the officer. There came a point when the officer had enough and decided to arrest the citizen for “disorderly conduct”. Those charges have since been dismissed.
Frankly I have to agree with the President that the arrest was a stupid thing to do. Police have a right to be treated with respect and most Americans feel that their response to a cop is “yes Sir” and “no Sir”. Others feel that when they have done no wrong and are still confronted by police, that the citizen has the right to speak his mind. The arrest of the citizen was stupid because the officer was the trained professional. He is the one we spent a great deal of money to behave with respect and professionalism at all times. Arresting the mouthy citizen was an excessive use of police powers under the circumstances.
But I do not believe nor agree with those who argue the arrest had racial overtones. The citizen was not arrested because he was Black. Instead he was arrested because he came upon what I have repeatedly argued in these columns as being the “Fifty One Percent Rule”.
Do you recall the tale of a professional football player was stopped by a Dallas, Texas police officer in front of an Emergency room where the player had been rushing to see his dying mother in law. Apparently just prior to entering the parking lot, the driver ran a red light and was spotted by police. What has drawn national attention and the ire of the public is how the officer insisted on pursuing a detailed investigation and arrest instead of letting the player go and spend the last few moments of life with his kin. The driver was not rude, did not use profanity, and was unusually calm in face of the dire circumstances before him. Now suspended, the Dallas officer drew his weapon on the football player driver.
Here locally, about three years ago in the Town of Dewitt, “something” happened resulting in a deaf mute being forcibly taken to the ground by the Town Police Officer. Only the officer’s version was made public. As a result of the incident, the cop was compelled to resign.
In his own words, the officer reported that after he, “stopped a car … after noticing a taillight was not working and the registration had expired. (How does a police officer determine a registration expired on a moving vehicle?) Then, “a second car pulled into the lot. The driver was flailing his arms in a violent manner. The woman in the passenger seat was trying to hold his arms down. … Believing he was seeing either an emotionally disturbed person or a domestic abuse incident, [He] approached the car, … looked at the driver and asked twice for the couple to roll down the window, … grabbed the door handle to help the woman get out of the car ‘in case she was in trouble.’ The driver then sped off about 100 feet into another parking spot. Somebody speeds away, that tells me something is up."
On the facts presented however, one cannot fault any officer in these three instances for doing everything required under the circumstances. Some folks might view the situation and call it street justice. Others might fling the term “excessive use of force” in the officer’s face. A few might opine the cop was being an asshole and there was no reason for his actions.
As a fundamental part of their training and something taught repeatedly throughout their careers, officers are always drilled on the fact that they must have complete control over a situation. This is considered to be essential to their safety. Under no circumstances is anyone to be on par with the officer. Taking control of the situation can make the difference in who lives and who dies. The officer on the spot is shouldered with the responsibility of not only protecting himself, but he must also keep everyone around him safe.
Basic to exercising this power and control is the Officer is to never be at a level of force on par with the citizen. Even a FIFTY / FIFTY balance of power is totally unacceptable. For Officer Safety and so as to assure Power and Control over a situation, police are trained to always implement a level of “force” above that which confronts them. Running from police is considered a threat, a challenge to their authority, and is disrespectful. They will catch you and bring you down. Ignoring an Officer’s commands can be deadly; regardless of whether the subject is malicious or well intentioned but uninformed. Some Americans still wrongly believe they have they right to question a police officer’s actions, to explain their innocence, not comply with an unlawful order, or resist an unlawful arrest.
The Dewitt situation gave us we had a unique opportunity to put the entire attitude and training under analysis and end the secrecy that has wrought so much injury and harm to society. There, and unlike Cambridge, the victim was white, disabled, and elderly … and the witnesses were likewise white. Sgt. Crowley of Cambridge does not deserve to be punished. In Dewitt, they fired the officer. All were patsies and victims themselves of our new legal system.
In the flurry of ‘get tough’ and ‘protect our police’ laws passed by Republicans in the moments and hours after 9/11, a new law was added that made it a serious felony to engage in an act that results in the injury or death of a police officer. Our lawmakers capitalizing on the sentiment of so many rescuers dead in the Twin Towers, used the passions of the moment to raise up our police officers to a higher social status, such that if you dare and harm one hair on their bodies, you will go down for a very long time. Pandering politicians and Judges needed to look tough on crime.
Recall the local Carncross case. Any fool who runs from police merely to avoid a speeding ticket or other traffic matter is an idiot. But just fleeing, without more, should not result in building more prisons or someone dying. A fleeing person is just “fleeing” not escalating the use of force. Merely “fleeing” without more, should not cause a citizen to lose his liberty or life. Police do not see it that way and lives are now ruined forever. The standoff with the Dallas officer was all about that power and control over the situation and the officer just could not allow the player to see his dying mother in law. Doing so would be contrary to training.
A few years ago in a trial in Federal Court, a young man told of a day he was skateboarding in the Armory back in 2000 as he had done all his life. Unknown to him, the Common Council had then recently enacted a law which banned skateboarding in the Armory. One evening, while doing his thing, the skateboarder passed two bicycle cops talking on the sidewalk. The skateboarder was in the street when he passed. According to police, they yelled to him to stop. The rider denied hearing anything and kept going.
It is what happened next that makes the point. When it was over, the kid was in handcuffs and in custody and spent the night in jail. His shoulder was badly injured and he had several bruises on his body. He was charged with “Resisting Arrest”. Also, he was charged with violating the skateboard ordinance. Taking both sides as having testified truthfully, it is apparent that the police thought the rider heard them, felt “disrespected” when the rider did not stop, and approached the rider with hostility and suspicion. The rider saw himself suddenly approached by police who were being hostile, belligerent, and using their hands for no damn good reason. The rider questioned his stop which provoked an escalation of force, which angered the citizen, which ….
Because of the social trauma the United States suffered back in September of 2001 coupled with the goal of Officer Safety, folks in government and politics have made us all captives to our own fears and ache for vengeance. We now live in a world where we have to “get” every offender. Nobody is allowed to escape. Even the smallest of offenses buried in the closet from decades ago, are coming back to haunt people thanks to algorithms put in place by Homeland Security. We love cops. They have reached the elevated social status of “hero” because they put on the uniform.
Perhaps if we dialed back our efforts at enforcement of the smallest violations of the law, we could return to a kinder, more gentler society. Doing so would require police to stop perceiving every traffic stop as a potential death trap. Not every disagreement with a citizen has to result in a “OGA” charge. No more ‘to-the-death’ chases costing Troopers their lives. Officers would have be less suspicious, more trusting, and obviously more willing to risk injury by trusting their fellow citizen. Overwhelmingly, folks are honorable and unless provoked unnecessarily, people generally do the right thing.
But, unfortunately for all us, police are afraid. Their comfort is found in being at a higher level of force than that which is front of them. To the innocent citizen, an escalation of force is unreasonable which itself prompts an even higher escalation … until finally the deaf mute is dropped face down on the asphalt and backup is called.
Unfortunately, incidents like this happen frequently. Luckily, the ends have drawn the means to light. At least light beer. On many levels, this incident has the potential of a good outcome. Like Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, this case could rip the roof off the shell behind which police have shielded themselves out of fear and angst. We need police to reconsider their training and relationships with the community such that they can find safety being on par with the citizen.