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The Great Train Wreck of the Republic

Cops lie.

If you haven’t the moral courage to hear that and consider what should be done about it, then go somewhere else: you’re not going to be happy reading this blog post. (Be sure to stay away from Injustice Everywhere, too.)

On April 11, Bobby Frederick posted an article about something that, one day, is probably going to get me killed: Contempt of Cop. With a link to video.

The next day, before I could get around to blogging about Frederick’s revelation, came this story about police essentially stopping people at will and searching them. Fourth Amendment? What Fourth Amendment? Oh, yeah. In case you didn’t follow the link: that story had another video.

The next day, Brian Tannebaum steps in with an analysis of the script cops use when they violate the law regarding stopping and arresting people. Brian’s script, accompanied by video, boils down to this: Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

As Brian points out, this sort of thing isn’t new. Police officers sincerely believe themselves to be in charge of the world. The law doesn’t applytothem, because they are the law. So you can’t question them, and you don’t get in their way.

It doesn’t matter if you’re driving a stricken patient to the hospital in an ambulance. (Video.) It doesn’t matter if you’re an innocent victim and called the police for help. (Video.) It doesn’t matter if you’re lying on the ground with a broken back. (Yep, video.) Or if you’re already a paraplegic. (Video.) It doesn’t matter if your hands are cuffed behind your back. (Video.) Or if you’re cuffed and several officers have you pinned to the ground. (Video.) Sometimes, if you’re lippy, you just have to be handled, even if you’re only 15. Or 5 (yes, that’s five). (Video.) Or 62. Or 87. (Video.) Or if you’re in your home. (Video.) You might just be out for a bicycle ride. It doesn’t matter if you’re mentally challenged. (Video.) It doesn’t matter how smart you are. (Allegedly there is video, but I can’t find it; another story alleging there is video.) It doesn’t matter if you’re a reporter doing your job. (Video.) It doesn’t even matter if you’re not the person they were looking to beat. (No video.) It doesn’t matter if you’re one of their own. (Video.) Heck, sometimes they get so confused, they even attack themselves! (Video and video.)

Sorry. I had to make the last two links to something funny. After watching hours of police attacking people on video — I couldn’t stop myself; it’s like watching the great train wreck of the republic — I just had to add the funny ones.

But it doesn’t really help. Because as Scott Greenfield noted, the day following Brian’s post, referring to the video Brian posted:

The video, and the story surrounding the video, still suggests that it’s an isolated incident. But for the video, this would be just another story about a beaten kid complaining about cops without any evidence to back him up. This isn’t to say that the police are wrong in every instance, but that the police can no longer wrap themselves in the presumption of being the good guys. The question remains, when a video like this goes viral amongst the general public and mainstream media, how to make clear that this isn’t an isolated incident?

How? Because, truthfully, we’re not nutcases. It is not an isolated incident. They are not isolated incidents. There are (at least) hundreds of them which have been videotaped. There are thousands of them reported. They are part of a pervasive culture of power, the natural outcome of an “us versus them”way of life. The script Brian delineated has become so common that many — and not just defense attorneys — now know it by heart.

Especially items 4 and 5 from the script, both of which can be summed up by saying, wait until “the investigation” (which we, the police, will conduct and/or control), before “jumping to conclusions.” Wait until we have rallied our troops, put our heads together, to come up with some explanation that will have some modicum of plausibility.

Angry that anyone would question their “split-second decisions,” the law enforcement “community” said it was wrong to jump to conclusions before the details of the investigation were complete. The sheriff defended the police publicly before any investigation even started, so he apparently was jumping to conclusions, but never mind. The consensus: calm down and wait for the department to see what happened. (Steven Greenhut, “The Militarization of American Police”(March 2008) The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty, vol. 58, issue 2.)

And we will do this. We will wait. We will criticize and try to silence anyone who states the obvious. Because not to do this means to recognize the truth: that our police officers can no longer be trusted at their word. Yes, they do protect us from the bad guys — well, the bad guys who don’t wear police uniforms.

But, increasingly, the bad guys wear uniforms.

See, the days when the uniforms designated the good guys — those were the old days. (I’m not so naive as to think of them as the “good old days“; they are merely the old days.) A different breed of police officer walks the beat. Well, actually, they no longer walk. And “the beat” has become “the beatdown.”

Police officials always depict their officers as reluctant warriors who rarely, if ever, use or even brandish their weapons. But this is a fiction from the past. Officers tell me the old-school guys are mostly gone and that the new breed of cop has a military mentality and often a military background. The SWAT-team members are the ones who do the training and get promoted to top positions in the departments.

There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that police are far from reluctant to pull their weapons or feel much remorse when they do. After Riverside police gunned down a sleeping girl named Tyisha Miller in a car in 1998 (she had a gun in her lap, was unconscious, and after police smashed her window, she moved and they immediately opened fire), the officers involved in the shooting stood around, joked, and animatedly reenacted the shooting, according to Los Angeles Times reports. One of the officers commented, “This is going to ruin their Kwanzaa,” after upset family members showed up at the scene. One local man arrived at the scene of another officer-involved shooting and reported that the police were high-fiving each other. (Greenhut, supra.)

In the streets, the police are in control. Anyone who doubts it needs merely to start clicking some of the videos I linked near the beginning of this article. In the courtroom, though, citizens, jurors — or, as the militarized police call us, “civilians” — are still in control.

Therein is found the answer to what we can do about this. There, in the courtroom, is where we can start to tear down the “us versus them” mentality, by refusing to buy into it ourselves. As Scott noted,

This isn’t about fostering public hatred of police…. This is about healthy skepticism, the end of blind faith.

We start to eliminate the “us versus them” mentality by reminding ourselves — and through our healthy skepticism, the police — that “they” are no different than “us.” “They” are human beings who will, like “us,” sometimes lie when it is in their own best interest to do so. The words of law enforcement witnesses must be heard and examined with at least the same healthy skepticism that we apply to the words of other — “civilian” — witnesses.

The only way to stop the great train wreck of the republic is to remember that it’s not a matter of “us versus them.” We’re all on this train together. Fundamentally, we’re all the same in our drives, our motivations, and our willingness to paint the picture of a world where we are always right. But officers must hold themselves, and be held, to a higher standard, because our republic cannot survive if we cannot trust those whose job it is to enforce its laws.