Police War on Photography
The Chicago Police Department was forced to release a video today—one that they went to court to keep from publicly releasing—of the shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. He was shot last October by Officer Jason Van Dyke. Despite the fact that Mr. McDonald fell to the ground after being shot once by Officer Van Dyke, Van Dyke proceeded to shoot Mr. McDonald 15 more times as he lay on the ground, then proceeded to reload his pistol, apparently to shoot some more, until stopped by his fellow officers. Thanks to this video, Officer Van Dyke is now under charge for 1st Degree Murder, which as far as I can tell from the video, is entirely appropriate. As I write this, protests are happening on the streets of Chicago.
This video has prompted further thought.
On 14 September, 1984, I graduated from the USAF Security Police Academy at Lackland AFB, in San Antonio, TX. On that day, I was issued Security Police badge number H3329. For the next decade I wore that badge while working as a security specialist, patrolman, police supervisor, desk sergeant and, somewhat to my surprise, as an Air Base Ground Defense Specialist—an infantry grunt—since Security Police were tasked with providing defense of air bases against ground forces.
The recruiter failed to mention that last bit when I signed up.
I learned a lot during that time, like how to de-escalate conflict and use verbal judo to disarm hostility. I learned about use of force, and to always use the absolute minimum of force necessary to effect an arrest. You’d think that military police would have a more leeway than civilians to knock heads, and deliver a little street justice, but that’s not true. We were held to high standards, on duty and off, and were expected to meet those standards. And we knew, without question, that any use of force on our part would be thoroughly investigated to ensure that it was justified, and that we would be severely punished if it was judged excessive.
We’d go to work every day decked out in crisply starched shirts, razor-creased pants, mirror-shiny shoes, carrying a loaded pistol or rifle and given the authority to use those weapons, if necessary, to arrest or detain anyone of any rank. In return, we’d adhere to rigorous standards of appearance, behavior, and conduct in exercising that authority. That was the deal. I can remember a number of fellows who couldn’t keep their end of that deal, and finished their short careers handing out ping-pong balls at the rec hall as Recreational Service Specialists.
After I left the service, I worked part-time for a number of years in Orange County, doing armed, high-risk security in gang areas. Again, we were required to wear sharp uniforms, and maintain high standards of professionalism. Even though we regularly had to detain gang-bangers, druggies, and other riffraff, not once did we engage in any excessive use of force, perforce being more limited to persuasion and advice than head-knocking.
That’s me, second from the left. All of us were either ex-military police, or graduates of a California POST academy, except for the fellow in the middle, who was attending the Academy at Golden West at the time this photo was taken. A few months later, he graduated, and started with Westminster PD.
That Sig-Sauer P229 I’m carrying, by the way, is the best duty pistol I ever carried. Loved that pistol. Great trigger pull.
But, that was long ago, and much has changed.
I was at the shopping mall in my little suburb of San Diego recently, and a local police officer was walking through the mall on patrol. He was decked out in combat boots, black BDUs, full body armor and SAPI plate, and a Molle vest covered with flex-cuffs, extra magazines, and other gear. His uniform was far more appropriate for a patrol in Fallujah than a suburban shopping mall in a community where the rate of crime has declined by half over the past 20 years.
That change is, I think, symbolic of a deeper, more fundamental change to policing that has occurred.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, many police departments participated in the “Officer Friendly” program, whereby elementary school children were introduced to amiable police officers, given coloring books that contained exhortations to remember that police officers were their friends, and were generally given to understand what wonderful fellows the local constables were. Now, of course, “Officer Friendly” is the sarcastic name given to abusive police officers.
I get the sense that police today are quicker to use force, less interested in de-escalating conflict, and far quicker to take offense to any suspected questioning of their authority. There seems to be a new class of crime today, one that isn’t actually the subject of any legislation. I call this offense “Insufficient Servility.”
There is a web site that you should read regularly. It’s called Photography is Not a Crime, and it catalogs, on a daily basis, the darker underside of policing in America today. It contains interesting stories on a regular basis. For instance, just culling from today:
- There are the NYPD cops who, after making some aggressive arrests at a restaurant, returned a bit later to delete the restaurant’s surveillance video.
- Or the homeless fellow who was beaten to death by the Fullerton, CA, police.
- Or the Delaware State Police, who decided they needed to use a SWAT team to serve a warrant on a home that was occupied only by a dog, which, of course, they shot.
- Perhaps you’d be interested in the story of the San Antonio man who was taking photos of his wife’s business, when he was jumped by three SAPD officers without warning, and left paralyzed from the beating they gave him, thinking he was someone else.
Even more amazing is how often the police escape all but the most minimal of punishments—if they are punished at all—for incidents like this. Sure, you’ll be in serious trouble if you’re videotaped unloading an entire magazine into a suspect on the ground. Absent that, however, you have an excellent chance of not being charged with any crime at all, usually because the fellow you shot started to “reach for his waistband”.
We are told of course, that there are bad apples in any basket, and most officers are very professional. In other words, the bad cops are a tiny minority of police officers. Much like Jihadists are a tiny minority of Muslims, presumably.
But now that video cameras have become ubiquitous, we sure are seeing a lot of video of this tiny minority, and as far as I can tell, the vast majority of the good officers don’t seem to be falling all over themselves to report and discipline the bad apples. In other contexts, that lack of enthusiasm might be referred to as “being an accessory”.
And I wonder, if there hadn’t been video of chunks of pavement and Mr. McDonald’s tissue being flung into the air from the impact of Officer Van Dyke’s bullets, if Officer Van Dyke would ever have been charged with anything. I wonder why we’re routinely using SWAT teams and no-knock entry for warrant service. I wonder why the new term “puppycide” has entered the lexicon. And, I wonder why, when violent crime has declined by 50% since 1993, police officers are shooting as many people today as they did when violent crime was at its height.
Policing, we are told, is a tough and dangerous job. Not as dangerous as, say, being a taxi driver or construction worker, but, still, dangerous, and they need to be proactive to protect themselves. Maybe so, but, frankly, I have little sympathy with that argument. No one is holding a gun to their head, so to speak, to remain a police officer. And in return for that danger, they are among the most highly-paid blue-collar workers, and certainly have among the most generous benefits and retirement.
In short, if the job is too dangerous for you to do in a courteous, professional manner…do something else. Otherwise, I suggest you find the physical courage to do the job properly, and deal respectfully with the public, rather than acting as if you were an armed overlord who is due whatever level of servility you judge acceptable, and empowered to punish those who refuse to offer it.
Certainly, it’s unacceptable to disguise cowardice as aggression, which is, I suspect, what Officer Van Dyke is guilty of. In addition to, you know, the murder. Allegedly.
What we should demand—indeed, the minimum we should demand in a free society—are police forces that live and work by the principles of policing laid down by Sir Robert Peel, nearly two hundred years ago, in 1829, when he created the modern police force:
1. The basic mission for which police exist is to prevent crime and disorder as an alternative to the repression of crime and disorder by military force and severity of legal punishment.
2. The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police existence, actions, behavior and the ability of the police to secure and maintain public respect.
3. The police must secure the willing cooperation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain public respect.
4. The degree of cooperation of the public that can be secured diminishes, proportionately, to the necessity for the use of physical force and compulsion in achieving police objectives.
5. The police seek and preserve public favor, not by catering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to the law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws; by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of society without regard to their race or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humor; and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
6. The police should use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to achieve police objectives; and police should use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.
7. The police at all times should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police are the only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the intent of the community welfare.
8. The police should always direct their actions toward their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary by avenging individuals or the state, or authoritatively judging guilt or punishing the guilty.
9. The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.
If the police want to make their jobs less dangerous, then they need to pay particular attention to Principle #2, because if they lose public respect—which I submit they are moving awfully close to losing—their job will become effectively impossible.
The police are given wide authority, and the authorization to use deadly force, when necessary. They owe us, at minimum, 1) a commitment to uphold the very highest standards of professional behavior, including using the absolute minimum of force necessary, and 2) to ruthlessly extirpate from their ranks those who fail to meet those standards. Anything else creates, to a greater or lesser degree, a police state.
In the interim, however, my advice to you is to avoid committing the crime of Insufficient Servility, and to never, ever, “reach for your waistband”. Because we all know how that will turn out.
This week, Michael, and Dale talk about The Malaysian Airlines tragedy, Obama, and aggressive policing.
The podcast can be found on Stitcher here. Please remember the feed may take a couple of hours to update after this is first posted.
As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Stitcher. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here.
Originally posted at the Washington Examiner on August 28, 2010. Some edits have been made to the original article.
It’s an enduring doctrine in America that one’s home is off limits to prying eyes and ears, and can be defended to the death if necessary. It’s not strictly true, of course, and certain states have eroded the doctrine to a gossamer wisp of the core idea. Yet, we tend to operate on an almost instinctual presumption that, when we are on our own property, we are kings and queens of the castle.
The resisting-arrest conviction last week of Felicia Gibson has left a lot of people wondering. Can a person be charged with resisting arrest while observing a traffic stop from his or her own front porch?
Salisbury Police Officer Mark Hunter thought so, and last week District Court Judge Beth Dixon agreed. Because Gibson did not at first comply when the officer told her and others to go inside, the judge found Gibson guilty of resisting, delaying or obstructing an officer.
Gibson was not the only bystander watching the action on the street. She was the only one holding up a cell-phone video camera. But court testimony never indicated that Hunter told her to stop the camera; he just told her to go inside.
Taking video of police stops is becoming more common with the ubiquity of cell-phone cameras and the like, and so is the backlash from law enforcement as has been amply covered by people like Glenn Reynolds (the famous Instapundit) and Radley Balko (from Reason Magazine). From the account given, it appears this why Ms. Gibson was arrested. What makes her case unique, however, is that she was on her own front porch when the encounter took place, and that she was taken into custody on a charge of “resisting arrest.”
Salisbury Police Chief Rorie Collins explained the North Carolina statute, under which Gibson was charged, as this:
“This crime is considered a Class 2 misdemeanor and involves:
“Any person who shall willfully and unlawfully resist, delay, or obstruct a public officer in discharging or attempting to discharge a duty of his office.
“Obviously, this charge is rather broad and can encompass many different types of actions that are designed to, or serves to hinder a law enforcement officer as he/she performs their duties.
“This charge is most commonly used in situations where a person who is being arrested refuses to cooperate and either passively or aggressively resists an arrest or tries to run away.
“Another very common situation in which this charge is used involves instances when an officer is conducting an investigation and the individuals with whom he/she is dealing provide a false identity when required to identify themselves.
“As you can imagine, there are also many other circumstances in which this charge would be appropriate.”
Chief Collins wouldn’t comment on the specifics of Gibson’s case, but did allow that, in general one does have the right to observe a police stop from one’s own property. He also seemed to suggest that a charge of resisting arrest may still be appropriate in a situation where bystanders refuse to obey police commands to exit the area for their own safety.
“However, just as with many other scenarios, it is important to remember that every situation is based upon its own merits/circumstances. There are some circumstances in which the police who have stopped the vehicle in front of your house may determine that it is in the interest of safety (the officer’s, yours or the individual stopped) to require that folks move. As with other circumstances, it is best advised that an individual merely obey by the officer’s commands.”
Perhaps on a public street the Chief might have a point, in that a colorable argument could be made that the police are charged with protecting the safety of the public highways and byways, even where the only danger is self-imposed.
But to arrest someone who is unmistakably on their own property, and doing nothing remotely illegal, is an abuse of power pure and simple. Even if it were true that Gibson was endangering herself by witnessing the traffic stop from the confines of her front porch, how could that possibly be construed as “resisting arrest” or “obstructing the police” without eviscerating everything that the concept of private property (not to mention plain old individual rights) stands for? Taking such a risk is not illegal. Doing it while occupying one’s homestead should be recognized as unassailably within one’s rights.
Since it appears that neither the police nor the district attorney’s office can be shamed into refraining from such power abuses, perhaps it will take a fat lawsuit for violations of Gibson’s (et al.) constitutional rights to get their attention.
The castle walls may be crumbling and decayed, but the invaders can be fought back and the walls rebuilt.
[ad] Empty ad slot (#1)!