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Treating Police Officers As Human Beings

As a criminal defense attorney, I find it irritating that I’m frequently treated as if only the first word in that tripartite title counted. With recent changes in Fresno, I’m now unconstitutionally searched several times a day; the sheriff’s deputies x-ray or lamely rummage through my bag looking for weapons every time I enter a courthouse. Given that most days I’m doing that a half-dozen times, you’d think someone would figure out that the most dangerous weapon I carry (which they routinely ignore) is my heavy, sharp-pointed, three-foot long umbrella on rainy days.

The irony is not simply the weapons that are overlooked by searches that range anywhere from perfunctory privacy invasions whose real goal is to show who’s the boss, but that, compared to law enforcement officers, criminal defense attorneys are, on the whole, saints.

So I’m even more irritated when I go into court and the words of police officers are given such great weight that anything I, my client, or witnesses for the defense might say is automatically suspect. But look at the evidence: police officers on the whole are, in fact, worse than defense attorneys.

On just about any given day, while the presiding judge is requiring brown-shirted deputies to ignore the law and search folks without any particularized belief that they have committed, are committing, or are about to commit any crimes and while those brown-shirts are “only following orders” (one of them actually said that to me), you can pick up the Fresno Bee and find between one and three stories about law enforcement officers breaking the law.

Police Chief Jerry Dyer himself — supposedly now a hardcore Christian — was previously investigated for having an affair with a 16-year-old girl. As with most other police controversies, nothing ever came of this. Since then, Dyer has remained an ardent advocate of withholding judgment on police officers who break the law.

And the Fresno Police Department’s most recently exposed criminal enterprise is not unusual. Police departments in other areas of the country routinely shake down “criminals” to improve the bottom line. Tenaha, Texas, for example, has a roaming cash checkpoint intended to help their cash-poor city to fund its two-person police department.

In other areas of the country, police routinely take property they want without warrants or right, in order to “investigate,” or cover up, crimes. After the recent BART shooting in San Francisco, for example, police chased down witnessses and confiscated their cameras. As the article points out, police have no right to take your property simply because you witnessed a crime. But as one First Amendment lawyer noted:

You don’t want to get into a situation where you are refusing to comply with law enforcement, especially when that law enforcement officer just shot and killed somebody. No camera is worth losing your life over.

Not all officers committing property crimes have such laudable motives as funding new police stations or protecting the reputation of the police force. Like other human beings, officers sometimes commit crimes because of addictions (5/2016 edit: San Jose Mercury News link has vanished from Internet). As with other human beings, police officers sometimes commit crimes of opportunity. But do drug dealers deserve to be robbed? Does this justify the officers’ crimes?

Officers who commit property and other crimes don’t just target drug dealers. Sometimes (6/2016 update: link broken, removed) they hit hardworking construction site owners. Sometimes it’s just a person who was stupid enough to trust them. Sometimes they even steal from their own fellow officers!

I want to be clear about what I’m not saying here: I’m not saying that all police officers are crooks, liars, criminals. Cases like each of these I’ve linked above should serve to remind us that police officers are human beings. Human beings not infrequently look out for their own interests. Not all police officers are crooks, but police officers are ideally situated to abuse the power we, the People, have given them. It’s no surprise, then, that they frequently do abuse this power.

Meanwhile, I’m hard-pressed to find any information about Fresno-area attorneys committing such crimes. I know of one local attorney who has been arrested and charged with crimes, unrelated to his job. I’ve no doubt there may be others that happened before my time. (My memory of such arrests is of a District Attorney and perhaps some Deputy District Attorneys, but I’ve no doubt criminal defense attorneys in Fresno have also committed crimes before. After all, the basic premise of my article has to do with humanity committing crimes.)

Isn’t it time we stopped considering officers as super-human and above reproach? Shouldn’t we understand that they’re subject to the same foibles, fears and fibs as other human beings? Shouldn’t we stop convicting people of crimes based almost entirely on the say-so of law enforcement officers whose jobs clearly bias them against the witnesses they defame in courtrooms and the people they aim to convict when they testify?

At the very least, shouldn’t we evaluate what they say in the context of all the evidence? Isn’t that what we do for other human beings when they testify in court?

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