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Thursday, January 8, 2015

Of Cops and Consequences

By now anyone reading this blog has some understanding of recent current events regarding interactions between police officers and suspects which have ended in the death of suspects and law enforcement officers alike, most notably in Ferguson, Missouri and in New York. Reactions by society are continuing to escalate dangerously, while many of us are looking at how we are protected and served in a new light. Or should I say, through a new lens.

I remember when the television show COPS first came on the air. First arriving in 1989, the show was among the original unscripted formats of the reality TV genre, and provided the public with a first-person view into the life of police officers in Broward County, Florida. It was an immediate success, and everyone I knew at the time recognized the "Bad Boys" theme song whenever it came on. Pop culture had embraced "protect and serve" as entertainment, and society would never be the same.

I remember being fascinated with the insider point of view, and the voyeuristic version of the necessary social duties of the officers. While doing their best to make it home every day at the end of their shifts, they also had to walk a delicate line of decorum that was being scrutinized by millions of watchers every episode. It became clear from the beginning that going forward, police activity and interaction with citizens would be altered in a major way. And, like the fickle and cynical group of sensationalism hounds that we are as a culture, criticisms started cropping up about how the police were doing their job.

Nevertheless, the boys in blue had earned their place in the prime-time lineups across the nation. There was no turning back. Like it or not, our police were now public icons as well as public servants. The viewers were tuning in, the station owners were getting rich, and the public had a new genre to add into their unusual and growing mix of music television, portable entertainment and digital technology. Our police now held the same status as glam rockers, knitted ties and big hair. "Police on TV" was now an '80s icon, emblazoned on the public psyche, paving the way for the next twenty-five years of progressive acceptance of the very entertaining - and very real - danger that police face every day.

Presently, this paradigm has morphed into a new creature. While the prime-time lineup of the '80s was not nearly as crowded as today's prime-time lineup, information is now something that we do not have to wait until 8 o'clock to learn about. News is immediate for the masses. This is true of ALL news - syndicated reports, tabloid articles, propaganda, pure fabrication and independent reports alike are available in rich quantities, to be consumed by their respective connoisseurs. However, in this new age of "instant expert - just add internet," the truth is the victim, and the loudest, most extreme voices seem to infiltrate discussions like a disease. There is a compulsion among certain people, it seems, to gravitate toward dialogue that has little to do with creating solutions, and more to do with "claiming victory" or creating an environment of "us versus them." I find this to be a disheartening commentary surrounding the nature of politics, and how people in the United States view one another.
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Meanwhile, another type of extremism has emerged from this new paradigm. Officers of the law, now exposed and laid bare to the ever-increasing harshness of the viewing audiences, are forced to learn a new way to interact with suspects. As a society that has a tendency to blur the lines between what we see in the media, and what reality actually has to offer, we have come to view our local law enforcement in the same way in which we view the television version of real justice. 

If our local law enforcement isn't how we expect it to be, based on regular programming and the "facts" of online news reports, then we decide that we are allowed to protest at any time during the process of an officer or a system of justice doing its job. Much ado is usually made before enough information has been processed to come to a rational conclusion, resulting in a knee-jerk media and social reaction to be the first to have the "correct" information, without much (if any) checking of facts and sources.

It stands to reason that on occasion bad guys will naturally make bad choices, and when they do, they may suffer the wrath of a human who has a job to do. If that job means that a bad guy who makes bad choices winds up twitching involuntarily because of voltage coursing through his flesh, with a knee in the neck and a half-dozen adrenaline-amped, armed people on his back, well, that is the price he pays for making poor choices.
Sometimes a suspect’s actions will be described by the officers in some coded version of "We now have justification to use whatever force necessary to officially whup ass." When this happens, and it is exaggerated by the officers, citizens begin to become alarmed. 

For example, when the television audience sees a flinch by a suspect being described by an officer as "resisting arrest," the charge rings hollow if the flinch was brought about by actions of the officer in the first place - a taser dart, a knee to the kidney, or a reaction to a foot on their neck.
... at a scene where the citizens interfere with a bungled arrest attempt. 
Errors abound, from both sets of parties involved.
Once "justified," it is almost as if the officers occasionally take advantage of the "cause" for force, and bring tasers, knees and bodies to subdue a suspect with an unnecessarily tremendous effort. This is evidenced in the episodes of COPS, when officers report activity before they engage in contact with the suspect, which describes the suspect as having potential for danger, thus justifying brute force, once captured. The dialogue  is well-rehearsed, even with no script.  

This exciting scene is routinely evidenced by video perspectives of running to the action; to find a herd of police in a dog pile, moving in an ambiguous mass, huddled over the suspect, who is in some state of submission, contorted beyond belief at the bottom of the pile; defeated and obviously not a threat

When the pile clears, the aftermath is an excited, adrenaline-rushed law enforcement officer on camera, breathlessly describing the scene to a superior in such a way that the audience must surely agree that many officers using tasers, brute force, and severe pain methods were justified in doing so.

After years and years of watching the same scene play itself out over and over in numerous ways, the viewing public has developed an idea that some amount of justification of these actions is normal, to some degree, and that if the force is too excessive, civilian interference should be tolerated, for the sake of social decency.

It would appear that this delicate balance of acceptance and civilian/cop interaction has shifted in dramatic ways as of late. In recent years, technology has made it so that the public may now share with the entire world what they witness during routine actions of police officers. As it turns out, many of the reports by law enforcement officers have been refuted based on video evidence.

In other words, citizens, for the first time in our nation's history, have felt the bold urge to address law enforcement officers in a variety of ways never before encountered by the police. More and more there is a feeling among all involved, spectators and participants alike, that the police have developed a "public face" and a "private face," and that as long as there are people around to witness the events of an arrest, it is "allowed" for suspects and spectators to complain and even conduct themselves in resistant ways, even while being arrested. Police have had to learn to be perfect professionals, until the need to use force presents itself. 

Back in the days of COPS, when the "public face" of law enforcement officers was the only aspect of their job on display to the masses, the perception was that these guys are just doing their job, and like any other human, they do their best to do their job in a professional manner, despite the actions of others who may make their job more difficult.

When the cameras are obvious, so are the actions of those being filmed. A televised show made this aspect of society real for most of us. After all, the camera doesn't lie, right? The problem with this philosophy is that we don't know anything about what led up to the moment the camera begins rolling. Maybe the suspect just finished kicking or punching the officer, and then the camera clicked on. Maybe, even though the suspect seems calm when the video starts, he was a flailing djinn only moments before. It is important to realize that, like a single witness, most of the time a single video is NOT the entire story, even though it does provide some hands-on evidence of the event.

If the cameras are obvious or known to the officers, they will work with their "public face" on display. However, if a citizen happens to capture law enforcement officers with their "private face" on, especially if the rendering is less than flattering, then sometimes the result is an unraveling of professionalism. When humans (even law enforcement officers) are caught off guard, or startled, sometimes the reaction is anger. How many times have you seen a news story about an officer angrily approaching a bystander with the singular intent of confiscating their phone? I believe that all of us may have seen this at least once. These actions are not isolated. In most places, these actions are also illegal.

Time and time again courts dismiss charges brought about by police and municipalities against people who are on public property, not interfering with police work, and video taping an incident. Higher courts dismiss the cases on the grounds of our Constitutional First Amendment. In order to find out how this plays out in your area, you must look to the Circuit Court of Appeals near you. Most of the time, they follow federal standards in cases like these. If you live in an area where people are getting locked up for video taping police activity, then it is time to dig a little deeper and find out how this archaic practice is even possible in your location.

Here is a brief description of what transpires through the lens of a particular dash cam video from a law enforcement vehicle. The video takes place on a country road that is part of a highway system. It starts on a two-lane country road, just before turning into a four-lane expressway, or highway. The video begins with a local police officer who just pulled onto the road, and is behind a fast moving suspect vehicle.
  • The officer is behind a vehicle, and is about to pull the suspect over for speeding
  • As the officer gets into position behind the vehicle, the suspect vehicle swerves aggressively towards a turning vehicle in front of it, as if impatient
  • The suspect vehicle picks up speed as the officer stays on the suspect's tail. As the road widens, and there is room to pull over, the officer turns on the lights and sirens
  • The suspect vehicle speeds up and makes two lane changes without signaling, and appears evasive
  • Now twenty-two seconds into the traffic stop, they come to a busy intersection, where they both come to a stop, and the officer once again engages the siren
  • The suspect vehicle starts forward, so the officer quickly swerves to the left, toward a full lane of traffic, in an attempt to control the scene. Vehicles in that lane begin pulling onto the left shoulder, to make room for the officer. The suspect vehicle continues through the intersection at a high rate of speed.
  • The officer pulls beside the vehicle, and through open windows, orders the suspect to pull over.
  • After a minute of active chase, the suspect finally pulls over
... at what happens when this guy finally gets pulled over, 
after blatantly abusing the law
Now I ask you. What do you think happens next? I realize that context matters, and I deliberately left out such details as specific surroundings, vehicle type, and regional reference. Nonetheless, all of us have an understanding that when a traffic stop becomes a chase, and the suspect makes indications that they have no regard for the safety of themselves or others, and that they are willfully and obviously refusing to follow directions, then there is a very real threat to the officer on duty. 

It also makes sense that, in order to make it home safely at the end of their shift, officers have every right at this point to engage as if there is a very real threat, and that unless they are vigilant, there is a chance that they may die at that very moment. I wonder what type of justified force will be necessary in this case. Certainly it is a situation where utmost caution is paramount; even tougher than a kid with a pocket full of drugs, jumping fences to avoid a dog snarling at his back. What action do you think the cop takes when he finally confronts the man?

What would you say if I told you that not only did the suspect NOT get arrested, the suspect got away scot-free, and even flipped off the officer on duty in the process? What kind of get-out-of-jail-free card did THAT guy have? Apparently there is a pecking order among police, and when the hierarchy is breached, there is only so much a local officer can do when a "bigger dog" is in the vicinity.

More and more, lenses have brought to the surface a tendency and trend of bad behavior by those we once entrusted as representatives of honor and integrity. As society realizes that the very people we hold to this standard not only have the capability to lie and break laws, these very people also seem to do so with impunity of self-discipline, and within a system that protects them when they act in this way. Citizens who once tolerated debatably harsh actions of law enforcement agents as being an extension of their right to defend themselves have now lost confidence that, in fact, defending themselves is actually what they are doing.

So what happens if we witness an arrest or a police stop and decide to capture it on our cell phones? The laws vary, and Gizmodo has a great article about this. The laws in most states allow public video of police actions, as long as you do not interfere with the law officer doing their job. In Washington state, for example, the court case Washington vs. Modica established that "...a party has consented to a recording if he or she is aware that the recording is taking place." Public video laws vary, but a standard has been set by precedent and current court proceedings, and courts have been supportive of video bystanders to law enforcement, in general.

Here are "Seven Rules" to follow when you video record law enforcement officers in action, as taken from the Gizmodo article:

1- "Know the law - WHEREVER you are"
Most of the time, the law does not criminalize the use of recording devices in areas of public access, or when there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. This means that if you decide to run video in a hotel lobby, on public streets or even filming conversations in public, that you are lawfully permitted to do so.
2- "Don't secretly record police"
Make sure that you keep your recording device completely visible at all times. If you are questioned, you can make the statement that you are recording this public activity from a reasonable distance.

3- "Respond to 'S*** Cops Say'"
Many times, officers will ask similar questions when a citizen is recording their activities. Following is a number of questions and responses you may consider, if you are ever approached by a law enforcement officer while you are recording a scene.
"Officer, I'm not interfering. I'm asserting my First Amendment rights. You're being documented and recorded offsite."
You only have to identify yourself if there is "reasonable suspicion" that you are involved with criminal activity. If reasonable suspicion is the cause, then ask if you are being detained. Otherwise, there is no reasonable suspicion of a crime being committed.
"Officer, I'm familiar with the law, but the courts have ruled that it doesn't apply to recording on-duty police."
"Officer, I have a right to be here. I'm filming for documentation purposes and not interfering with your work."

4- "Don't share your video with police" 
According to Gizmodo, the safest bet is to anonymously upload your video to YouTube. This information is based on recent success by anonymous uploaders to avoid legal action.
5- "Prepare to be arrested"
Whenever you appear to defy legal authority, you should expect to be arrested. If you are given the ultimatum to "Shut it off, or I'll arrest you," make sure to record a response similar to "Okay, Officer. But I'm turning the camera off under protest."

6- "Master your technology"
Many times police will confiscate your phone, and then review the videos, if they can. One way to maintain your privacy is to protect your phone with a pass code. Also, you can set your videos to private, which adds one more layer of protection. If possible, do these things, then power your phone down when approached, so that the phone is locked when it is turned back on.

SF Chronicle attributes this picture to
"Michael Short/Special to the Chronicle"
7- "Don't point your camera like a gun"

Even if a guy in the crowd, who is dressed like a protester, acts like a protester, and incites like a bad protester claims himself to be a cop, and then draws a gun. Even if a big angry guy with a gun is pointing it at your face because HIS undercover gig was blown by someone else, and you have every right to take video in a public location. No matter what, should you NEVER put yourself in a position where anyone can claim that your obviously-not-a-gun phone/camera could ever be confused with a sideways .45, aimed right at you. There should be no penalty for being completely legal.   

While researching for this article, I was fortunate enough to watch an episode of COPS where all elements that make for an exciting police call were present - domestic violence, gawking and talkative neighbors, some bleeding dude about average size, pointing a finger toward some four-plex apartment buildings, and about four lit-up police vehicles surrounding the area, with cops milling seriously about their cars.

About that time, the obviously biggest person within blocks of the scene fills the walkway, partially blocking out the light. The camera panned right, filling the frame with this mountain of a human, without a shirt. The expression on his face was calm and his demeanor was peaceful - a "gentle giant," if you will. This was despite the loud, annoying, hateful couple who were lunging toward the guy. Right then I knew that the big guy was going down. Watching enough of this type of programming had made me jaded.

The big guy had his hands up as he tried to wade through the mad couple, toward the officer, who was about thirty feet away. He was bucking his body at the people, to get them out of the way. Meanwhile, approaching the big guy, a clean-cut, professional officer drew his taser, aimed it toward the man, and began to yell, "Get down!" The officer yelled it clearly four times, about once per second.

At some point between the first and fourth "Get down!," an officer approached the suspect from behind his right side, and grabbed his arm. The suspect, not able to see the person, brought his elbow back hard, and dropped the officer. After the approaching officer yelled his last "Get down!," he then made the very clear and loud order, "Stand back!" People stepped away from the big guy, and from about six feet away, the officer pulled his trigger. The suspect was hit with both darts to his bare torso, and he hit the ground, a-twitching. The officer quickly cuffed him, and sat him on the curb.

The officer then approached the bleeding other participant and began to find out what was happening at the scene. After talking to both parties, and some of the neighbors, it was determined that apparently the big guy kicked them out of his place for being deadbeats. Nothing dramatic. The big guy just left their stuff out in the yard. When the couple came back, they were mad, and the big guy was defending his property. He claimed that they were "druggies," and that he didn't want his kids around that.

What I liked about this segment/call was that the officer never lacked professionalism, and the suspect never showed hostility. Because of the situation, and the justification that even a large suspect has every right to be mad and fed-up with the deadbeats he tries to help, the fact that he showed intelligence and decided NOT to show his frustration probably said more to the officer, after all of the stories were obtained.

Whenever I watch an episode, my main role is to be entertained, even though the actions on screen are very real and potentially dangerous. Although the episodes are intentionally designed to capture the audience's attention, I feel a bit bad, however, that my perspective is so jaded. In an ever-increasingly stimulated environment, rich with electronic pacifiers and placebos, rife with violence in entertainment of all kinds (video games, music, movies), a person must have to either adapt or wither in a literal social Darwinism paradigm. If people are not entertained by what they are watching, then the reality show will not be popular. However, when I feel entertained by the actions of police and suspects on television, I also feel that I somehow cheapen the reality of the situation. While this may not necessarily be the case, I can't help but think that this perspective is not realized by many who help me "voyeurize" a slice of society's necessary function of law enforcement.

If you remember the phrase, "Don't tase me, bro!" then you may remember an infamous social incident which occurred at the University of Florida, during a John Kerry speech in 2007. One of the student reporters was persistently working on Kerry to give up information about "Skull and Bones," a secret society reportedly linked to a variety of presidents and powerful people.

After his allotted time, the student was asked to step away from the podium. After refusing to do so, he was detained. He was struggling a bit, so one of the six or seven actively engaged officers at the scene revealed his hand-held taser. At this point, somewhere at the bottom of a pile of people, you hear a dramatic shout, "Don't tase me, Bro! Don't tase me!" It is comical, in a way, probably because the viewer realizes at this moment that the protester is going to get tased anyway. Sure enough, right then you hear the pleading turn to agonized groans and related sounds. Schadenfreude has a way of creeping into this voyeuristic entertainment, and this is how it plays itself out - "Better him than you."

This particular scene in social commentary occurred at a time when tasers were being debated, and the general public was still in discussion about the use of lethal force to subdue a suspect. Now, several years later, there is still discussion and inconsistency regarding how less-than-lethal and even lethal force can and should be applied.

Take for example the recent case of a suicidal university student in California. He allegedly attempted to set himself on fire at one point, and there were a knife and hammer in his dorm room, although the suspect wasn't near them at the time. The initial responding officer (a campus officer) was able to calm down the student, and offer him a glass of water, to continue to deescalate the situation.

While the officer stepped away to get water, officers from a different local agency, who had also been called to the scene, entered the dorm room and proceeded to tase the suspect, based on their interpretation of an elevated threat. When the original campus officer returned, he was instructed to tase the suspect. He refused, and after the suspect was detained, the officer was written up for "failure to act." Subsequently, four days later, this officer of the force for 20 years was released from duty and terminated. In essence, his actions are exactly what we hope to see in a situation that isn't so much criminal as it is medical - an officer with a specific skill set for handling emotional situations with dignity and grace. This is rare, and when it is a skill being used, other officers must recognize this, and understand what is happening. For him to be reprimanded so harshly is an indication toward the type of systematic "good ol' boy" treatment which is still in effect, in places.

If a person is to understand this situation fully, one distinct feature of tasing as non-lethal force must be addressed. That is, have we come from an age where being tased was a feared action, to an age where we would rather be tased than dead? Is being tased so accepted as a way to subdue a subject that it becomes as docile an action as handcuffing a suspect? I mean, if a police officer loses a suspect because they weren't handcuffed, it makes sense that they are reprimanded for "failure to act". However, I understand just how hard it usually is to fire a cop, and for an officer to be terminated for not tasing a suspect who was already subdued indicates corruption, not justice.

The entire behavior between and among law enforcement and society is a very complex issue, and if we are to seriously attempt to rectify any indiscretions within any related systems, it is imperative that society does not attempt to offer simple, blanket solutions. Instead, the best way I see to deal with the situation is to break it down into manageable parts, as they say. For example, there can be mandatory levels of specific training before any officer is allowed any "hands-on" contact with "suspects." This is a criteria that should be cross-checked by an uninterested precinct in another district, for integrity purposes.

Fortunately, it is clear that a vast majority of police officers are impressively capable of handling suspects - even unruly suspects - with professionalism and efficiency. However, I believe that this skill set needs to be refined and focused, and then tested by a neutral agency or another bureau before anyone is allowed to lay hands on another person in a law enforcement capacity. I realize that the quick and simple argument is that officers by and large are already being trained to capable levels, and are expected to know how to professionally handle suspects and bad guys, rendering a unilateral standard unnecessary. I also realize that people die when law enforcement officers are grossly negligent in their training and knowledge.
... at the type of training that officers SHOULD have,
if they are expected to physically engage with suspects.
Something else we can do is find a way to deal with the inevitable cries of racism which are ringing through the streets of places like Ferguson and NYC, and which echo and linger in places like Sanford, Florida, in addition to backwater, white-hood legacy towns all across America. Like it or not, agree or disagree, the simple fact remains that whenever police abuse their authority, and the social perception is that oppression due to race is the reason, the stakes are raised, and the backlash is harsh. 

Until and unless we figure out a way to somehow untangle race from the issue of abuse of authority, the very mention of race within discussions regarding the eradication of abuse of power among authorities only serves to complicate an already convoluted discussion. In addition, the amount of negative energy related to the public outcry pointing to the racism involved with recent as well as historical cases does way more to harm the cause than it does to promote it. It makes sense that while it is important to address racism as an underlying, maybe even motivating factor, it is also important to do so in a civil, persuasive way. No matter how mad you are, if you can't figure out a way to persuade others without harming them, you are no better than the oppressor.

Another important detail is that we need to be sure that the points which we are arguing are relevant and do not displace any otherwise useful energy toward more realistic arguments. Take for instance the way people in society these days are obsessed with the political ideologies of others. By this I mean that today, more than at any other time in my life, people appear interested in identifying others first with a political ideology, only to then pigeonhole them and then jump to conclusions, which are then argued as truth. I am sure that there is some technical, clinical definition of what kind of argument this is, but the closest I come up with is straw-man, which may work, but does not address the apparent underlying mental instability of these types of individuals. As a result of this reaction to words on a screen, it is easy to get caught up in arguments invented by potentially mentally unstable people who, for some reason, align the actions of others as exclusively related to their particular political party. Our job, as a society, is to disengage with people like this when it comes time to discuss serious, real social concerns.

I hold myself to certain expectations which I consider to be of value to society. I have learned that it is naive to hold the general population to these expectations. However, I have realized that part of my job as a citizen is to know when to hold certain social servants to specific standards. For example, I expect that the post office clerks are knowledgeable, professional, honest and that they understand their role in society as movers and handlers of parcels. I expect that ambulance drivers are alert, observant, efficient and that they understand their role in society as savers of lives. I expect that police officers are fair, discretionary, professional and that they understand their role in society as protectors of communities. When these perfectly reasonable expectations are not met, or worse yet are exploited, I am not only offended, I feel a citizen obligation to hold them to task. If I observe and then do not point out any indiscretions to others, then who will? Nobody else can see what I see, so who else is tasked to report any bad activities on the part of those in society with whom we place our trust

My expectation for society is that we stop blaming and fighting. We need to quit hating and baiting. We should stop allowing our emotions to override our most valuable asset during conflicts arising around this issue - our intelligence. No matter what we do, until we learn and decide to put a stop to the vigilante mentality, the madness will continue. Poorly trained, arrogant egomaniacs will still qualify for badges, and those who are victimized by them will still continue to attempt to defend themselves. Hard-working, intelligent, well-trained officers will still continue to deal with ignorance, misplaced hatred and socially undesirable (although undeserved) prejudices. 

I am working at my end, in part by simply putting the word out there. It is up to you to spread it, and play an active part in helping other people along in this direction. Otherwise, our expectations for those in socially entrusted positions must be lowered, I suppose, and the new social slogan can be something like "May the best emotionally charged maniac win."
Stephen L. Wilson is a writer for Blog of Ages. His experience as a self-publisher serves him well in this capacity. Wilson is the editor of two international charity anthologies, Twist of Fate and Angels Cried. He is also the author of the self-published eBook Life Bits and Other Chunks: Memoirs of an untrained man. Stephen has established and managed many international social network groups. E-MAIL
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