An article in yesterday’s New York Times caught my attention.
No, it was something else. I’ve always thought that I knew just how bad things are when it comes to the police, but last week I had an opportunity to observe a police encounter up close in a poor neighborhood where I’m pretty sure I may have been the only white person for at least anywhere within easy walking distance. (Even the officer was Hispanic.)
And things are way worse than I thought.
The NYT article isn’t so much about the lying. The article focuses on the reasons for the lying.
For the record, the New York City police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, denies that his department has arrest quotas. Such denials are mandatory, given that quotas are illegal under state law. But as the Urban Justice Center’s Police Reform Organizing Project has documented, numerous officers have contradicted Mr. Kelly. In 2010, a New York City police officer named Adil Polanco told a local ABC News reporter that “our primary job is not to help anybody, our primary job is not to assist anybody, our primary job is to get those numbers and come back with them.” He continued: “At the end of the night you have to come back with something. You have to write somebody, you have to arrest somebody, even if the crime is not committed, the number’s there. So our choice is to come up with the number.”
Isn’t that passage interesting? The police can’t stop themselves from lying. It’s mandatory, given that much of what they do is illegal under the law. So when they aren’t busy working with the courts to twist the meaning of the Constitution of the United States, and their own local laws, they lie to make it appear as if they are actually honoring those documents.
Most of us don’t see this. We aren’t there in the streets with them. They like to remind us of this to try to justify their activities. When they shoot and kill their fellow citizens — human beings who may or may not have done anything wrong, let alone illegal — they want us to understand that they are risking their lives out there in the ‘hood with the scum, the low-lifes, the common criminals.
In Fresno, where I have my law office, the frequent shootings of human beings by police officers are always accompanied by news articles that tell us the criminal history of the human being who was shot. The one who is not there to defend himself anymore and who, even if he were, no one would believe, because he’s not a police officer. If there is no criminal history, the story will be filled with statements like “suspected gang member,” or “believed to be involved in [insert some horrific crime here].”
And we believe it. Not because we are terrible people:
[Former San Francisco Police Commissioner] Keane, in his Chronicle article, offered two major reasons the police lie so much. First, because they can. Police officers “know that in a swearing match between a drug defendant and a police officer, the judge always rules in favor of the officer.” At worst, the case will be dismissed, but the officer is free to continue business as usual. Second, criminal defendants are typically poor and uneducated, often belong to a racial minority, and often have a criminal record. “Police know that no one cares about these people,” Mr. Keane explained.1
Don’t think that it’s just swearing matches between drug defendants and police officers that causes the problem. The second part of that paragraph is where the real truth lies. The people brought into court are predominantly “poor and uneducated, often belong to a racial minority, and… ‘[p]olice know that no one cares about these people.'”
But this business of us not being in the streets with them cuts both ways. As I said, I had an opportunity to witness this first-hand last week. I’m not going to go into all the details right now — that’s for another post, probably on my Fresno Criminal Defense blog — but I am absolutely certain that what I saw would never occur in north Fresno. Because what happens in the streets when we’re not there is that one hell of a lot of people — entire communities — are being oppressed and abused in ways that white people, who have traditionally had all the power, would not stand for.
But, guess what? The day is coming where it won’t matter anymore who you are, where you live, or what color your skin is. We’re very nearly there now. When cops are in the midst of an adrenalin rush, they don’t pay attention to anything except the fact that you are in their way. Most of you, you excuse such behavior. After all, you tell yourself, they’re dealing with an emergency. And while that may be true, there was a time when — emergency or not — the police would never think to behave like hopped-up drugged-out crazed thugs while performing their duties.
For too long, though, we’ve allowed them to get away with it.
The fact that our legal system has become so tolerant of police lying indicates how corrupted our criminal justice system has become by declarations of war, “get tough” mantras, and a seemingly insatiable appetite for locking up and locking out the poorest and darkest among us.
The drawback is that, as this becomes more normal, and as it becomes a part not just of police culture, but of our entire criminal justice system, it also becomes more difficult for police officers to remember the artificial line they’ve maintained, the one they normally won’t cross, between non-white and white, between underprivileged and everyone else. It’s like that now-hackneyed Niemöller quote, which we could re-write for our time:
First, they came for the non-whites,
And I didn’t speak out because I was white.
Then they came for the poor,
And I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t poor.
Then they came for the uneducated,
And I didn’t speak out because I was educated.
Then they came for me,
And there was no one left to speak for me.
Quoting from the same NYT article mentioned above, in 2011, a justice in the State Supreme Court of New York showed just how far our naïveté — our ignorance of the ease with which police officers lie:
“I thought I was not naïve,” he said when announcing a guilty verdict involving a police detective who had planted crack cocaine on a pair of suspects. “But even this court was shocked, not only by the seeming pervasive scope of misconduct but even more distressingly by the seeming casualness by which such conduct is employed.”
If we and our courts don’t wake up and smell the rottenness that has spread through our system, if we don’t start to put the brakes on, you can bet that the corruption will continue until no one — not even you — will be safe. If we allow our police power unbridled by law or Constitution, the day will come when they won’t even pretend to care. If you get in their way, they will arrest you; they will remove you from “polite” society; they will brand you as a criminal…
…because they can.
- Emphasis added. [↩]