It’s been an interesting month. On July 28, 2012 when 21 year old Chavis Carter was found, according to a police report, “slumped over and bleeding in the back of a patrol car”, what had happened seemed pretty obvious—the police had executed another black man in Arkansas.
A few weeks later, responding to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Associated Press, police released dashboard video they claimed proved that the young Carter did in fact shoot himself in the head while in police custody. That’s right; the police are sticking this unlikely story: Chavis Carter, 21, shot himself in the head while handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser after being search for weapons not once, but twice. For those of you who have never had the distinct honor of being arrested, let me remind you that your hands are cuffed BEHIND your back. You are then shoved into the claustrophobic confines of the police cruiser that is fitted with a safety barrier that makes it nearly impossible to sit with your knees in front of you let alone maneuver out of your cuffs to find a hidden gun to blow your own brains out. As it turned out, the video that cops said verified this fairy tale suicide cut out before Chavis’ body was found in its post mortem condition. You don’t say.
“While the problem of police brutality and misconduct is nothing new, the environment of near legal immunity that has been created by the courts in their soft dealings with criminal police has surely made combating these abuses of power problematic.”
This story comes on the heels of a number of controversial shootings by police in Anaheim California and less than a month after police in Saginaw Michigan shot a homeless man 46 times, killing him in broad daylight on the corner of a busy intersection. This unfortunate series of police murders encouraged me to dig deeper. I decided that I would Google search police misconduct everyday just to see the results. I eliminated any results where the police shot armed suspects whether or not I believed the police reports. The awful result of my daily police misconduct search–even after purging questionable stories, left me with some gems.
On August 5th, Lashonn White, who is deaf, called 911 after she was attacked in her home. Tacoma Washington police responded but did not help her. Instead, the police tasered her and locked her up for three days without access to an interpreter.
In Troy Kansas, a police officer pled no contest to sexual exploitation of young girls. Brian Vincent, a former cop and school board member, was caught with videos of underage girls who were nude or undressing. The girls were filmed without consent. He will be sentenced on September 12th.
On August 7th, an off-duty Methuen Massachusetts police officer was reportedly “in a rage” when he forced a woman attending a bachelorette party to the ground and dragged her in what turned into a bar brawl that took two security guards to break up.
Colby Taylor of Forest City Arkansas was walking down the street when police arrested him on outstanding warrants. In police custody Taylor was pushed around, pepper sprayed, choked and finally tased for insisting that the warrants had already been served. He was telling the truth. It was later discovered that a computer error failed to alert police to the fact that Colby had in fact been served the warrants.
Timothy Darnell, a former Lewiston Maine Police Officer, was arrested in May for assaulting his girlfriend, Lorrie Champagne. He was arrested the following morning for returning to her house. Champagne claimed that Darnell had grabbed her by the throat and shoved her head into a glass window. Darnell, a former DARE officer was found guilty of two counts of domestic violence and sentenced to 364 days on each count. All jail time was suspended by the judge.
In Chicago, former police officer Alex Guerrero admitted that he used his badge to steal drugs, guns and money for the Latin Kings street gang. In court, Guerrero admitted to routinely pulling people over or entering their homes using his badge and uniform to make his actions appear official. Assistant U.S. Attorney David Nozick claims Guerrero stole drugs, guns and between twenty and twenty five thousand dollars that were all handed over to the Latin Kings for payment of three to four thousand dollars each. Guerrero will be sentenced on January 11th.
In Spring Valley California, police shot a woman in the chest in her own backyard. The police were looking for a “suspicious man” when they wandered into Jennifer Orey’s backyard with guns drawn. When they came upon Ms. Orey, one officer fired from his service weapon hitting her in the chest. The bullet exited her chest and struck her arm and went on to cause damage to her pinky finger.
So what’s the problem here? I understanding that the police are human and are bound to make occasional “mistakes”. Rape, sexploitation, assault, murder; these are crimes that police and the general public are guilty of committing. When a person is suspected of committing a crime, legal penalties are assessed the criminal upon conviction. Seems simple enough; commit a crime, get charged, tried, and if found guilty, convicted and sentenced. But that’s where the water gets a little murky. The CATO institute operated National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project has done extensive research regarding the prosecution of crime. Their report is worth quoting at length:
“Per a recent analysis we published this year using data gathered by the NPMSRP from April of 2009 through December of 2010 we determined that prosecuting police misconduct in the US is very problematic with conviction rates, incarceration rates, and the amount of time law enforcement officers spend behind bars for criminal misconduct are all far lower than what happens when ordinary citizens face criminal charges.
From that report we established a baseline by examining the latest data released by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) which indicated that the conviction rate for members of the general public who were tried on criminal charges ranged around 68% from 2002 through 2006. Furthermore, the US BJS reports indicated that the incarceration rate remained fairly stable at an average of 70% and the average length of post-conviction incarceration for the general public was 49 months.
For a comparison we used data from our National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project (NPMSRP) which tracked over 8,300 credible reports involving allegations of police misconduct in the US from April of 2009 through December 2010 which involved nearly 11,000 law enforcement officers within those 21 months. Of those reported allegations, only 3,238 resulted in criminal charges against law enforcement officers. Of those 3,238 criminal cases against law enforcement officers in the US, only 1,063 officers were ultimately convicted of those charges or reduced charges associated with the original allegations. Of the law enforcement officers who were ultimately convicted, 36% were ultimately sentenced to spend any time incarcerated and the average length of incarceration for those sentenced to prison or jail was approximately 34.6.”
A kid who knows that he/she can get away with taking another cookie from the cookie jar will probably take it. How are we to blame individual police officer misconduct when police as a whole are unprosecuted or under prosecuted in relation to the general population for committing the same crime? It would seem that the problem of police misconduct is systematic. While the problem of police brutality and misconduct is nothing new, the environment of near legal immunity that has been created by the courts in their soft dealings with criminal police has surely made combating these abuses of power problematic.
We are often told that the police are generally good, that the “bad apple” cop is not representative of the police as a whole. If this is the case then the “bad apples” should be dealt a just and equal punishment when convicted of crimes. The police community should do everything that it can to distance itself from the rouge officer. This however does not happen and unfortunately, the opposite has proven itself to be the case. Individual police officers that report the misconduct of their colleagues are often harassed, threatened or even fired. In Des Plains Illinois, former police officer Richard Rozkuszka was allegedly fired for reporting the misconduct of a fellow police officer. This is not an isolated case. Apparently the only “rogue cop” is the one who goes against the grain and reports police wrongdoing.
It is true that police do serve a function for good on occasion. I contend, however that in times of need or in moments of desperation, ordinary people will meet the threat and attempt to neutralize it. We all remember (I hope) U.S. flight 93 on September 11th. If not for the actions of the passengers and crew members onboard, that jet would have no doubt become another missile. The police exist to maintain order; an order that has nothing to do with the well-being of citizens. The order that the police maintain is one dictated by the other arms of the capitalist state. The myth of the peace officer must be put to rest.
This is not a history of the police in America; other authors have already done that. However, a quick (and extremely brief) look at where the police come from is bound to shed some light on the issue of police misconduct and violence. I will attempt here to show that the police are not conducting themselves poorly at all; that they are simply fulfilling their historically defined duty.
Police in the United States are descendants of British metropolitan police who themselves evolved over many years. Here in the United State, the police began as watchmen in urban areas. Later, slave patrols on southern plantations took on the duty of policing the slaves in the fields and were hired to catch escaped slaves. Overseers were hired by plantation owners to literally over-see the activities of slaves (KRS-One was right). Post-Civil War America saw a rise in industrialization and a boom in immigrant populations. Labor struggles became common and workers became a threat to the wealthy elite who owned the factories. After Pinkerton strike breakers fell out of style, it was police hired by factory owners that broke up labor strikes with batons and bullets. Cities grew and political parties struggled for power; the police became tools for political “machines” and corruption was the norm. The political power struggles made police aware of their strength, they saw that they had the ability to sway and in some cases determine the outcome of elections. A period of modernization saw police across America become more organized and consolidated; police departments began to look and act like the ones we are used to seeing today. It is quite clear that the police have been connected to human rights abuses, selective enforcement of laws, political scandals and corruption since their inception. The police today are no different and in this respect are doing the job they were created to do (and doing it well).
Over the past year, social movements have topped headlines. Occupations protesting social and economic inequality in major cities have been met with police brutality on a massive scale. New York City police were pepper spraying non-violent women trapped behind a police net while Oakland police nearly killed former Marine, Scott Olsen, by firing explosive “non-lethal” weapons just feet from his head. The Occupy Wall Street movement has shown us exactly who the police are serving and protecting.
This is a very brief critique of modern police. Since I am not writing a book I can only touch on issues of race and class and how one becomes a target if one happens to be of a variety that the police find threatening. I don’t claim to have a ready-made alternative to police at the moment—that’s a discussion to be had with a much larger community. I am simply suggesting that perhaps our notion of officer friendly is off the mark. Are typical ideas of police reform even the answer? After all, what former police model do we have to look to? Slave patrols? Strike breakers? Corrupt tools for political machines? Maybe acknowledging the true nature of police is a way to start the needed discussion that I hope will lead to the development of a holistic alternative to policing; one that focuses on eliminating the conditions that turn citizens into criminals in the first place.