Friday, October 3, 2014

"Body cam" not likely to put cops on their "best behavior"

I mentioned a week or so ago that cops can seem to be awfully dim at “interpreting” actions that would seem “normal” to all but the most paranoid people. The other day, a bald-headed Kent cop walk into the fast food restaurant I was sitting in, with his arms curved out like you see gunfighters do in those old “Old West” movies. A real “tough” guy looking for “action.” I was doing some blog work on my laptop, and as soon as he spied me he approached and asked me if that was my bicycle outside. I said no, and as he walked away I mentioned that it “figured” that I would be the first one he asked. He responded by saying he was “just curious,” and then asked me if I had seen someone with a red jersey; I said I saw someone with an Atlanta Falcons jersey on, but I didn’t know where he went (I didn’t really want to “help,” but the guy in the jersey had a bad habit of annoying me). The cop walked around, saw him on the other side, and put the cuffs on him. 

What I found most curious about this chain of events is that despite the fact that the cop had obviously been given a specific description of the “suspect”—including white and rather tall—he decided it might have been “wrong” and the “ethnic” guy might have been the actual “suspect.” Was this was a cop with race on the brain, or just a stupid one?

Anyways, in the never-ending quest to supply police with new toys in which to abuse a person’s civil rights, it seems that the Seattle Police Department is the latest to experiment with “body cameras,” devices which are worn on the chest to record video of encounters with citizens; whether or not these devices will also record audio, like dash cams, is not clear. While it may appear in principle that such devices protect both police ad citizens insofar that encounters can be more closely monitored and analyzed—insuring that both parties are on their “best behavior”—in practice it is unlikely that a cop will “restrain” his or her abuse of power. One does not have to appear to be showing a lack of restraint in physical force in order to be “abusive,” or to instigate a “physical” confrontation. Nor does a camera necessarily prevent poor judgment and subsequent lethal action; a dash cam did not prevent Ian Birk from telling lies about his encounter with John T. Williams, or shooting him dead for no rational reason on a downtown street during lunch hour.

Let’s examine the following scenario: A police officer spies a “suspicious” looking character sitting on a park bench reading a book, perhaps “suspicious” only because of his race, ethnicity or style of clothing doesn’t “match the “profile” of a book reader. The cop has no real basis for this suspicion, save for the fact that the “suspect” fits a certain “profile.” The cop approaches the “suspicious” person and asks what he is doing. The “suspicious” person asks the cop “What does it look like I’m doing?” The cop says “I don’t know what you are doing,” although in his mind “suspects” that this “suspicious” person is doing a “suspicious” thing (not fitting the profile) that this must be a “cover” for some illegal activity, such as a drug buy or sale. 

Or maybe the cop’s mind is so racially and “ethnically” consumed with negativity that there is a need to bully—especially those who threaten to expose their “instinctual” first impulses (i.e. those who are “articulate”)—persons who must be “put in their place,” because they are in many ways more “dangerous” to the police than actual criminals. Or maybe it is that the cop is simply doing his or her “job”—meaning driving the “suspicious” person out of sight for the sake of public (meaning white folks’) safety, or rather, keeping the minds of some free from the inconvenience of paranoia and unreasoning fear.

In any case, the cop is in a bind here. The “suspicious” person is not doing anything illegal, and is not “loitering” but engaging in an activity that under normal circumstances would be considered “normal” and even an expected activity, especially on a pleasant day. The cop just has this “instinctual” need to intimidate. The “suspect” should be offended by the presumption of the cop, which is clearly based on racial or “ethnic” profiling, or deep-seated antipathy the cop has toward certain people. 

The cop might say that the suspect is “loitering” and must leave, or just “loiter” himself, hoping that his continuing “intimidating” presence might “persuade” the offensive individual to leave on his own accord. However, the “suspect”—angered by this indifference to his rights—refuses to budge. The cop, flummoxed by this indifference and “disrespect” of his “authority,” at first attempts to make himself even more aggressive in the maintenance of his posturing, to which the “suspect” might finally respond to by making a derogatory comment. This is the “opening” the cop needs, using the “contempt of cop” rationalization to then demand identification, even though the “suspect” legally expressed an “opinion” that was more likely than not an accurate one. 

Legally, the “suspect” in this case does not have to show the cop identification, unless the cop can specifically justify reasonable “suspicion.” However, the cop can always concoct some rationalization, such as “We had a report of someone fitting your description” doing something or other, even if it’s a bald-faced lie. The “suspect” may demand to know more details, or ask the cop to prove what he is alleging is true, or merely point out that he is being harassed for no reason, and demand to know why his rights are being abused. The cop, of course, can’t really explain why he is doing what he is doing because it would expose the abusive use of authority based on the personal prejudices of the cop. The cop may then decide to either issue an illegal ticket for a made-up infraction, or try to manhandle or arrest the “uncooperative” suspect who has done nothing wrong.

I was actually accosted by a cop for merely reading a book while sitting on a park bench in the middle of the day, although this one thought the better of taking matters any further. However, cops frequently do make such “mistakes.”  In 2008, Romelle Bradford was awarded $268,000 in federal civil rights case against the SPD.  Bradford was chaperoning a dance sponsored by a Boys & Girls Club when he called police to intervene after a scuffle occurred outside. The scuffle had broken up by the time the police arrived, and Bradford left the premises. Apparently one of the tardy officers yelled out to him to stop. According the Seattle Post-Intelligencer,

Bradford said he didn't think the officer was talking to him because he said he was wearing a red T-shirt clearly identifying him as a Boys & Girls Club member. He said he was holding up his club badge and showing the officer his T-shirt when he said the officer decked him with his forearm. Using the F-word, the young officer threatened to break Bradford's arm as he handcuffed him in front of several youngsters who were protesting that he was, indeed, a staff member trying to help.

After a police station interview in which Bradford insisted he was a staff member, police nevertheless booked and jailed him overnight. Briskey claimed Bradford's failure to immediately stop justified the obstructing charge and that a hesitation to offer one arm during handcuffing -- which Bradford doesn't recall -- justified the resisting charge. Criminal defense attorneys refer to "obstructing a public officer" arrests by two other monikers: "Contempt of cop" and "the cover charge." Several told the P-I those nicknames are applied because the charges are sometimes abused to punish people for their being "mouthy" or to cover up when police might have used wrongful force against an innocent person.

These actions haven’t gone unnoticed nationally. In 2011, the Austin (Texas) Chronicle noted that

Similar issues have been raised with PI and other subjective-standard crimes such as loitering, obstructing a police officer, or resisting arrest in Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; and Seattle. Inappropriate contempt of cop and cover arrests, and the too-often unnecessary uses of force that accompany these arrests, are a widespread problem. These abusive arrests cause direct harm to those arrested, violate the constitutional rights at the core of our democracy, alienate large segments of our people, and make policing less effective.

Now, how will a “body cam” interpret such incidents—especially if there is no audio? Obviously a cop may feel “compelled” to use physical force against a “suspect” who is “uncooperative,” even if he is doing or saying nothing at all. What else can a cop do when his “authority” is being “challenged”? Of course, this situation should never have been instigated in the first instance by the cop, because nothing illegal was in evidence to justify his “suspicions”—save perhaps the “dictates” of racial or ethnic profiling. The only illegality was the cop’s own actions (yet somehow always found “justified”), and to cover it up requires more illegality, as in a made-up charge to justify an illegal arrest or charge. 

But the “body cam” without audio may merely show a cop “politely” or “respectfully” asking questions, when something quite contrary is occurring. It might not seem obvious that the “suspect” is asking the cop to justify harassing someone who has done nothing wrong. It might not seem apparent that the cop is deliberately using his or her power to create an atmosphere of needless conflict. Thus a cop can manipulate the course of action in which the images on the “cam” can be “interpreted” in a way that suits a cop-friendly narrative.

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