Wednesday, September 24, 2014

To Seattle cops suing against reform: Trust has to be earned

The behavior of police has received a bit of attention lately, such as in the “choke-hold” death of a New York man, Eric Garner, who told the police present that the plainclothes officer (did he know he was a cop?) who was strangling him that he “couldn’t breathe”—this for the crime of selling marijuana paraphernalia on the street—and of course the Michael Brown shooting. Here in Kent, police have been accused of lying about the events that led up to the shooting death of suspect outside a motel; an Oregon couple that witnessed the shooting were disturbed enough about the false nature initial reports that they contacted the local media to offer their take. Despite this, there is a funding proposition currently on the Kent ballot asking the local provincials (there are so many people here with Southern accents you’d think you were in Mississippi)  to help the police protect “us” against “them.” 

Apparently, the local police cannot function without a new home to accommodate a “growing force.” What’s “funny” about it is that the current police pad used to be the public library—nearly 33 percent larger by square feet than the totally inadequate current building (which its recent “remodeling” did nothing to fix). The new “public safety” building will be nearly three times larger at a cost of $34 million—and you can forget about the library moving to its old location; the “Robert E. Lee” Building will be torn down and the new one constructed on the same site (of course, there is a question of where the “temporary” home will be). At least we know where Kent’s “priorities” lie. Also interesting is that proposition notes that half the city jail population are the “mentally ill.” 

In Seattle, police are telling us that we need to believe their stories concerning the “truth” about police conduct reform. But then again, we know all about their habit of lying; For example, the original story about the shooting death of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams, concocted with the help of a police guild representative, was that Officer Ian Birk saw Williams sitting on a wall with a knife, and when Birk approached him, Williams lunged at him with the intent to stab him, in which case Birk had no choice but to shoot him dead. Unfortunately for Birk, there were not only witnesses to what actually happened, but he apparently forgot about that squad car dash cam. 

Cases like this cause one to think about those cases in which the only “witness” to a shooting by police happens to be the person they just shot, and no one can be certain of what actually happened. 

Meanwhile, King County Sheriff John Urquhart reversed an earlier decision following a contentious public meeting to allow the so-called lateral vascular neck restraint (LVNR) as a “valuable law-enforcement tool.” The LVNR is the so-called “blood choke” hold, in which the arm is used in a scissors-like fashion supposedly pinching a person’s blood supply to the brain rather than air passages. People may be under the mistaken impression that the LVNR is a non-lethal form of restraining a “combative” suspect,”  like tasers and batons; but in fact it is regarded by police agencies as a form of “lethal force”—particularly when the “blood choke” doesn’t work as “trained,” as in the case of the New York victim.

Naturally, since many citizens have this ingrained distrust of police, which wasn’t helped by the fact that Urquhart implied that a choke hold could still be used in a “lethal” situation, naturally to be defined by a police officer. Could another Ferguson occur here? It seems that the black audience only believes such things happen to them; but such an event already occurred, in the case of Williams. Other minority groups have the same racial stereotypes applied them. 

Trust in police also wasn’t advanced in the case of a Seattle police officer who went on a personal crusade against the marijuana legalization law. While it is true that toking in in full view of the public is technically against the law, similar to drinking alcohol, one suspects that someone with a slight “buzz” is far less of an annoyance that your typical talkative inebriate. Last year the interim police chief, Jim Pugel, was quoted in The Stranger as saying that citing people for pot smoking would "only be used as a last resort after someone has refused to put it away. It takes time and money to write a citation. Let's focus on the things that make the city safer."

That apparently was too much for SPD officer Randy Jokela, nicknamed “Officer Joker” by the locals. Since the legalization law went into effect, Jokela wrote 66 of the 83 pot smoking citations in the Seattle, mostly in and around city parks. According to reports, Jokela decided to become a one-man army against legalization, although the record indicates he sometimes used arbitrary methods of carrying out this vendetta. According to the Seattle Times, “In addition to the references to (City Attorney Pete) Holmes, Jokela wrote on one ticket that he used a coin toss to decide which of two men to issue a ticket and on another described state voter approval of marijuana legalization as ‘silly.’” Jokela also did not conduct himself by stated policy, that officers are supposed to issue a “warning” for first “infractions.” That 37 percent of the citations were issued to blacks apparently was not seen as racial profiling.

Jokela was “disciplined”—i.e. wrist-slapped—by the new police chief, Kathleen O’Toole, who requested that Holmes (a supporter of the legalization law) to dismiss all of the citations issued by Jokela. His supervisor was also cited for failure to “supervise” his activities, apparently condoning them, something that can hardly be said to be unexpected.

After all of this, SPD officers continue have the nerve to claim that “The greatest threat to the city’s public safety in our time” is the effort to reign in their history of thuggery that bred deep distrust and brought on the Justice Department investigation of the SPD and subsequent court order to reform its use-of-force polices? Without citing any evidence to back-up the claim, officers who brought to the lawsuit against reform, are claiming that they must “go through a complicated, contradictory and confusing checklist of requirements, criteria and options” which lead to “immediate threats of harm” to their persons, meaning that “the City is now knowingly and willingly playing politics with Plaintiffs’ lives and the lives of the law-abiding citizens of Seattle.” Note that not it isn’t implied that the “lives of law-abiding citizens” may be under threat from such police officers who have filed the lawsuit.

One may (or may not) recall that last year the city paid out $1.75 million in damages for the “violent arrest” of Brian Torgerson, a schizophrenic who was gagged with a sock, punched and tased, causing him to choke on his own blood and vomit, and eventually blocking air to reach his brain—leaving him with severe brain damage. Police claimed that they acted as they did because Torgerson was “resisting” arrest, but witnesses claimed he was not resisting. It is interesting to note that Torgerson’s own father had requested the presence of the police after Torgerson allegedly assaulted him the day before; how often do “loved ones” request such attention for mentally-disabled family members, only to have their condition worsened by the time police are finished “helping”? 

Frankly, when the police already cost the city millions every year for their misbehavior, maybe they should be the ones paying back the city. But they don’t. Not only do individual officers not have to pay a dime of their own money, but police department budgets are almost never touched; these lawsuits are always paid out the city’s general fund or through expensive insurance—meaning the taxpayer.  According to the New York University Law Review, “governments paid approximately 99.98% of the dollars that plaintiffs recovered in lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by law enforcement” from 2006 to 2011. According to a report by the Associated Press, in the past decade New York City has paid out nearly $1 billion in lawsuits against police misconduct. 

And we’re supposed to be feel grief for the SPD officers who feel that reform sets an “impossible standard” for them to abide by, leaving them “scratching their heads and fearing for their lives.” Is this supposed to be some kind of sick joke? The lawsuit also has the appalling mendacity to claim that the lives of “suspects” are also “endangered” by reform. 

We can only hope that U.S. District Judge James Robart, who is supervising the implementation of reform, has the last say on the subject: “To those individuals I simply say: ‘Get over it. The train has left the station. It’s not going to turn around. The good old days are not coming back.’”

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