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Unchecked Police Powers – What’s the Counter?

I’m not particularly in the mood to write, but I’ve been sitting on this one for awhile, and it’s bugging me, so pardon me if I ramble. Anyway, I’ll first mention three noteworthy videos.

I came across this vid on YouTube of a woman in handcuffs demanding a lawyer and a phone call. The officer turns off the camera, and when it comes back on, she’s lying in a pool of her own blood with two badly bruised eyes and a couple broken teeth. She gets wheeled away to the hospital. The officer claims she fell. He was then fired. No criminal charges were filed against him. Done deal, right?

Well, it lead me to other links, even more disturbing. The next one was of a woman who had been assaulted, and called 911. Yet, she was arrested, stripped bare by male and female officers, and left in a cell, naked for six hours. She ended up covering herself with toilet paper. Not one officer was disciplined. Apparently, a technicality allows them to strip people in custody, without it being classified as a strip search, therefore allowing members of the opposite sex to help where normally it would have been forbidden. As long as they think you’re a suicide threat, they can strip you.  The conditions that trigger that assumption appear to be extremely weak. She aptly felt she had been “raped without penetration” (it still amazes me how many of my fellow men [typically right-wing, cough] still don’t understand the nature of rape. It’s about power and humiliation, not the actual sex. The only equivalent for a male, is being raped by another male). Several other women came forward describing similar experiences at this police station. The state attorney chose not to do anything.

And then, we have the infamous Chicago PD. I swear they’ve got to have some of the most corrupt officers in the country, on par or maybe even eclipsing the LAPD (see female bartender case, screwdriver-in-the-anus case, protection racket case). A woman calls 911 after a scuffle breaks out at a party. Apparently another woman had hit an off-duty officer at said party. Instead, the caller is mistaken for the attacker, and she is thrown in the back of a cop car, handcuffed.  One of the cops asks the off duty officer if he’d like a free shot at her. He then breaks her nose, and her left orbital eye socket with three punches. They ignore her pleas for medical attention until she passes out sometime later. None of the three officers were disciplined, even after another female officer filed a professional complaint on her behalf. The state attorney found “no criminal intent.”

Now that I’ve gotten all those out of way, what is the counter to police corruption? We’re supposed to be a nation of checks and balances. We’ve got the legislative, executive, and judicial. They are three parts of one unit, the government, and they work fairly well when checking each other. But the nation includes another unit, the people. The government and people check and balance each other, sort of, in a, I would argue, highly asymmetric fashion in favor of the government. Gun nuts have realized this for probably as long as America has been around, but I don’t think arming the public to the teeth is the answer. The people can vote for members of all three branches, but that’s fairly weak in terms of active oversight. We vote, what, every 4-6 years (and somehow Bush still managed a second term)? We do have free press, but the press is fickle, resulting in a fairly unreliable, indirect check. It seems driven more by profit these days as well. The government, on the other hand, has massive checks against the people. It creates laws, most of which the people aren’t even aware of, it enforces laws at its discretion, and it passes judgment at its discretion in non-jury cases. I don’t mean to imply it can do whatever it wants, just that it has seemingly free reign when there is no oversight.

Actually, I’m going to break the government back down into its three pieces because I think within itself the checks and balances versus the people are also asymmetric.

  • With the legislative branch, you vote for the legislators. Their proceedings are generally recorded, I believe.
  • With the judicial, you vote for some judges. You get a lawyer, an extra-government entity. Court proceedings are also recorded. A jury of the people may be present.
  • With the executive, you do vote for top level members. But it seems like once you go down that rabbit hole at the bottom level, there is very little accountability. As the above videos can show, your ass is theirs. Until you break out of the executive phase and enter the judicial phase, you don’t really have reliable public accountability. There is no active check from the people. You’ll get a lawyer eventually, but there is plenty of time where it will just be you. And the only enforcer against police corruption is the executive itself, leaving us with the executive checking the executive. That’s not good.

For woman number two, the grand jury chose not to press against the officers. The grand jury system is interesting. It works quite well when the defendants aren’t cops. The DA goes in and makes his/her case in front of the grand jury arguing why so and so should be taken to trial. The defendant is usually at a very large disadvantage at this stage, having limited ability to defend. I guess the rationale is “if you’re innocent, you can prove it at the actual trial.” Basically, the DA has a LOT of power to determine what cases actually go to trial.  From the Wiki:

In practice, a grand jury rarely acts in a manner contrary to the wishes of the prosecutor. Judge Sol Wachtler, the former Chief Judge of New York State, was quoted as saying that a prosecutor could persuade a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.”

And it looks like for this woman, the DA chose to protect the officers. I believe the DA opted not to show the video, nor have her testify in front of the grand jury. If they weren’t officers, I’d bet money that he/she would have taken it to trial. The problem is it’s a self-feeding loop. Officers provide DA’s with criminal fodder to prosecute. Sometimes, DA’s were even officers themselves; combine that with the good ol’ “Blue Wall“, where officers turn a blind eye to crimes committed by other officers, and it becomes less surprising why these DA’s did nothing. And sure, some departments have an internal affairs department, but it’s still the executive trying to keep itself in check (and again, the Blue Wall). I should mention that I’ve called the cops once, as a victim, and like the woman in the video, I was treated like a perp. Go Irvine PD!

For woman number three, even though her face was broken, the DA found no evidence of criminal intent. Wow. Can you imagine a DA telling a non-officer that? “Oh, you just broke someone’s face with repeated punches? Well, I don’t think there was criminal intent.”

Woman number one. The officer got fired, but no charges were filed against him because of the classic he-said-she-said.

Basically, officers are granted enormous power. Their word is worth more than your lowly citizen’s word by sheer weight of public trust. The rational goes like this: There’s more of us, than there are of them; therefore, officers, being assumed of higher morality, have no incentive to provide false testimony against you, because you’re a stranger. That makes no sense. If the officer feels like being a dick, that’s incentive enough.

Anyway, there’s something common in all three videos, other than the fact that the victims were all women. It’s the fact that a video camera was present. So is that a possible check? Mandatory video surveillance? I think it’s certainly a good candidate. We’re already moving in that direction as it is. Most cop cars are equipped with cameras. Police stations, too.  It helps them put away real criminals, and it helps the innocent against corruption.

But the laws and standards seem very weak. It appears officers are free to shut off cameras at questionable moments, assuming cameras are even present. For woman number one, police policy allowed the camera to be shut off at that moment during her alleged fall. Why? No idea. For woman number two, some of the videos just happened to disappear or the cameras turned out to be broken when lawyers requested them. Laws won’t prevent that, but they can actually add some teeth to video surveillance handling. Last year, a Chicago police officer beat the shit out of a female bartender. He got away with it. His department fully supported him….up until the point where surveillance footage was released. Then the department pulled a 180 and booted his ass. Rodney King deserves a mention.

We’re in the modern 21st century now. Maybe we didn’t have the technology before, but today we do. The far right like to argue that if you’ve got nothing to hide, you shouldn’t mind having some privacy taken away with surveillance. Well, why not the other way? Even more so, officers should have nothing to hide. All officers not serving in covert operations should be recorded. While acting in the capacity of an on-duty officer, they are public servants. It helps them nail the real crooks, and protects the innocent from corrupt cops. Less corrupt cops, means more respect for the badge. I recently read about one city that is actually wireless networking all their surveillance cameras on police cruisers. It’s mainly to help them, but it should help the innocent as well. Then, we need laws actually formalizing how data is handled, when it can and cannot be deleted, how to secure them, etc. Hell, even the President’s communications are monitored to an extent. Governors, too.  It doesn’t really seem that difficult. It’s mainly a basic IT problem. If we can have the NSA work with AT&T to funnel the damn Internet into a classified room, we can formalize camera laws in stations and cruisers.  If we can have intersection cameras, or public CCTV, we certainly could handle cameras pointed at the police, too.

Clearly, these videos show that footage alone won’t bring justice. But it’s scary to think how many cases don’t even get as far as these because there was no video.

Lastly, the FBI does handle civil rights abuse cases, coming down on the local executive sometimes, but it seems pretty fickle about that, too. It’s just a pipe dream, but if we’re going to have the executive watching the executive, strengthening the federal police in that fashion might work, too, especially in conjunction with strengthened camera laws.

Anyway, enough of my rambling. I am not a lawyer.  If I’ve misunderstood something, please let me know.

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One Response to “Unchecked Police Powers – What’s the Counter?”

  1. David says:

    Check out a book called “Constitutional Chaos: What happens when the government breaks its own laws” by Andrew Napolitano. A real good read about government abuse on individual rights.

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