Monday, October 29, 2012

Is it Time to Police the Police?

'The 'thin blue line' - a barrier
shielding officers from responsibility?
Every week, somewhere in the US, there's a story of some kind of police activity that leads people scratching their head, or saying 'That isn't right'. It's an issue that's been around as long as police officers have and has become a cliche, accepted without question. The problem is that it's a problem that's only getting worse, not better, and it's a problem that's not being addressed.

Law Enforcement - the name sounds majestic, but the reality is anything but. On the streets today, a number of police officers will conduct crimes, and face not even casual questioning of it, much less any sort of punishment. It has truly turned into a world where people are above the law.

This was an issue I started thinking about at Dragoncon when we ran the annual panel of '10 rules for dealing with the police'. Our expected speakers cancelled at the last moment, so we solicited tales from the audience. In the end we had three people who had bad experiences with police officers, two of them were former Law Enforcement officers themselves. If you want to hear their stories, the audio is available on the track's archive site.

Then there was this story at ArsTechnica, A plain-clothes officer, in an unmarked car, stopped a teenager who was going through a park on his way home, then physically tackles the kid because he decided to videotape it, while sitting on the ground complying. Now, if you or I had attacked a kid, and there was evidence of it, we'd be locked up and waiting to see the judge. This officer is on 'desk duty'. Not arrested, not imprisoned, but still working for the police department and being paid.

One of the most famous incidents of police brutality was Lt. Pike, at UC Davis. The infamous pepper-sprayer, who used a chemical weapon in violation of it's guidelines on use, and did so on a group of seated individuals. If you need to be reminded, here it is again.

Indeed, there are now TENS OF THOUSANDS of videos on youtube showing officers violating the law, committing criminal acts, or condoning them through inaction.

There have been instances in the UK as well. Two famous cases occurred in London, In 2005 there was the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, and in 2009 the death of Ian Tomlinson. Both were killed by police officers, and had committed no crime.

de Menzes death was at the hands of the SAS-trained SO19 firearms squad. They believed him to be someone else, involved in bombing the previous day. Regardless, the officers charged him down, threw him to the floor, and fired. Seven shots to the head, and one to the shoulder. They had mistaken him for a suspect that lived in the same building, a fatal mistake for de Menezes.

Such a serious flaw would naturally lead to arrests, trials, etc. yes? No. Cressida Dick, the person in charge of the operation, has been promoted twice since then, and is now the Assistant Commissioner for Special Operations. None of the firearms officers involved were disciplined, or even identified publicly.

Ian Tomlinson is, if anything, worse. A man attempting to get home from his place of work during the G20 protests is quite literally attacked by police officers. He was attacked from behind; and thrown to the floor. When on the floor, he remonstrated with police, then was helped to his feet by a protester, and started to walk off. Some 60meters (200ft) down the road, he collapsed. He never got up. When passers -by (including a news photographer) attempted to give medical assistance, the police forced them away. Tomlinson died before he reached the hospital.

Despite Tomlinson offering no resistance, doing nothing but standing with his hands in his pockets, a full-strength strike was performed by PC Simon Harwood, on the back of Tomlinson's legs; followed by pushing him to the ground, where his head struck the pavement. He had committed no crime, had ignored no order, his only 'crime' was to be present. It wasn't until this footage was found, that the police even admitted any misconduct had happened, instead they flat-out lied about it.

The aggressor, PC Simon Harwood, was finally fired last month by the Met for his actions, the second time he’d left the London force. In the late 90s he left on medical grounds and was awarded a medical pension, coincidentally while waiting to face a disciplinary board for misconduct in aroad rage incident.

The problem seems to be increasingly exacerbated by the ‘threat aware’ mentality of police officers these days. Officers are seeing every interaction in terms of threats, and a need to control the situation. This domination mind-set invariably starts things off on the wrong foot and leads to confrontation and distrust.

But exacerbating it is the ‘closed ranks’ mentality – the ‘blue shield’ that protects officers. It usually shows itself as ‘Omert√† and is nearly impossible to penetrate.

Those that do, such as the NYPD officer Frank Serpico (who testified about systemic corruption in the NYPD in the late 60s/early 70s, after being shot and abandoned on a drugs raid), are often ostracised. When Serpico got the departments not medal, the ‘New York City Police Department Medal of Honor’ It wasn’t in a ceremony, it was without the pomp and circumstance you would expect, because not only were they ashamed of it, they didn’t want to encourage others.

And this doesn't even come close to the problems when it's the chiefs, and not just the patrolling officers that have the problem, such as Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has had his jails ruled unconstitutional, and has been investigated for intimidation and abuse of power. But what can you do? Walk up and arrest him?

All in all, we're seeing a 'consequence of no-consequences', as rights and procedures which would be followed for your or I, are ignored for actions performed by law enforcement.

So, what should we do? That’s something that will be addressed in part two, but if you have suggestions, by all means leave them in the comments.

This piece was also published at and is released under a CC0 license

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