We Need to Stop Trusting the Police
Last Monday, a jury found two former Fullerton, California, police officers not guiltyon one charge of excessive force, two of manslaughter, and one of second-degree murder in the beating death of Kelly Thomas. The 2011 altercation, which lead to Thomas’s death five days later, was captured in detail by surveillance cameras and audio from police recorders—on tape, the cops can be seen beating the homeless man mercilessly and Tasing him twice in the face. At one point, Thomas is moaning “Help me dad” as the officers swing their nightsticks at him.
That fairly clear video evidence, along with the activism of Kelly’s father Ron (a former sheriff’s deputy) and the mobilization outraged community, ensured Thomas’s death got a lot more media coverage than the killing of homeless people by police normally do. But the officers are still walking free after beating an unarmed man to death. (In fact, one of them, Jay Cicinelli, already wants his job back.) How does that happen? A great many people in the community are asking that same question—multiple protests against the outcome of the trial this week resulted in 14 arrests
One answer to that question is that the jurors, like most Americans, probably thought that cops are generally almost always right. A Gallup Poll from last month found that 54 percent of respondents had “high” or “very high” amounts of trust in police officers. People think more favorably of cops than they do journalists, politicians, lawyers, or even members of the clergy. The only authority figures more trusted than the police are doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and grade school teachers.
Property seized in drug raids can help fund police operations, but now that marijuana is legal in Washington and Colorado there are going to be fewer drug raids, which means fewer seizures, which means less money for the cops. Good.
What Happens After Police Shoot Innocent Bystanders?
On Wednesday, a judge ordered the city of Torrance, California, to release the name of the police officer who shot at surfer David Perdue during the February manhunt for former LAPD cop Christopher Dorner, who at the time was out to murder as many of his ex-colleagues as he could. At the time the officer came after Perdue, Dorner had already shot two sheriff’s deputies, killing one, and gunned down the daughter of a LAPD officer and her boyfriend.
Fearful that Dorner might go after a local LA police official next, Torrance cops pulled over Perdue on February 7, asked him a few questions, then let him drive away. A few seconds later a second cop car rammed his truck, and an unnamed officer fired three shots, all of which (thankfully) missed. Perdue’s attorney also alleges that he was dragged from his vehicle afterwards. Dorner, by the way, was black and Perdue is white.
Perdue wasn’t the only victim of the police and their sudden inability to see color during this manhunt. A pair of newspaper carriers—47-year-old Margie Carranza and her 71-year-old mother, Emma Hernandez—were fired on by LAPD officers that same day because their pickup truck apparently looked like vaguely like Dorner’s. That incident provoked a backlash against the LAPD after Hernandez was hit in the back twice and her daughter suffered a hand injury. In fact, Torrance police said they were responding to the report of these mistaken shots when they fired on Perdue. The mother and daughter received a combined $4.2 million from the LAPD for their troubles, while Perdue has refused to settle with the city for the $500,000 they offered him.
The DEA Is Monitoring Your Phone Calls
On Sunday, the New York Times revealed the existence of a program known as the Hemisphere Project, which gives the Drug Enforcement Administration and local law enforcement agencies around the country access to a database of Americans’ phone records that goes back to 1987. You might think that a judge would have to sign off on a subpoena in order for the cops to view your phone records, but the process is actually much more streamlined (and invasive): the federal government reportedly pays AT&T to have the telecom giant’s employees sit next to DEA agents and local police detectives and show them whatever data they need. Technically, the information is stored by AT&T and not the government (this avoids some sticky legal issues), but in practice the cops have access to a database that logs billions of calls a day and includes not only who you called, but where you were when you placed the call. (Your call gets logged if it passes through an AT&T-owned system; you don’t have to be a customer of the company for them to have your data.) The current official Obama administration excuse for the program they were forced to admit the existence of is that it helps track down drug dealers and other criminals who tend to use difficult-to-track disposable cellphones.
This story comes on the heels of a story published by Reuters last month that detailed the NSA´s quasi-legal habit of passing on tips to other agencies, like the DEA, that don’t normally work on national security-related cases. After being given these tips, investigators then “recreate” where they got their evidence in a trick known as “parallel construction,” which allows them to hide where they got their information from defendants, judges, and even prosecutors. (Members of Congress have been pressing Attorney General Eric Holder about this, and he claims this is a common tactic used to protect sources.)
All these revelations about the scope of the information the DEA has access to are frightening, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Although the government originally claimed that it would only use its massive powers of data collection and surveillance in serious, rare, 24-type situations, of course they are using these same powers to go after more mundane criminals. For instance, “sneak and peek” warrants, which allow the police to search your property without informing you as they normally would, were legalized by the terrorism-centric PATRIOT Act but somehow wound up being used more often in drug investigations. This sort of codependent relationship between the war on drugs and the national security state makes it difficult to separate the two. It’s becoming clear that it’s unrealistic to ask the government to play by the rules law enforcement is supposed to be following except in situations where big bad terrorists are involved; mission creep is inevitable. More than one tentacle of government needs to be hacked off before Americans get some privacy back.
The Cops Should Always Be on Camera
For the past 12 months, police officers in Rialto, California, have been wearing cameras while on duty as part of a pilot program. It’s expensive to mount a camera on every uniformed cop, but the idea is that by recording all the interactions between officers and civilians and suspects, cops will behave better and complaints against the department will be quickly resolved—if someone makes a claim about being mistreated, it can be easily proved or disproved by a look at the tape. The experiment seems to be going well, and starting September 1, all 66 uniformed officers in Rialto will wear them. Complaints against the department have gone down 88 percent over the course of the year-long study while the use of force by officers declined by more than half, implying that cameras really do benefit both police and civilians. Indeed, a New York Daily News article highlighted the case of Rialto cop Randy Peterson, who was cleared of an excessive-force allegation lodged against him by a mentally disturbed man thanks to his body camera.
Stop Tasering Us, Police Bros
Early in the morning of August 6, Miami Beach police fired a Taser burst into the chest of Israel Hernandez, an 18-year-old artist and skater who was running from a half-dozen cops after they saw him spray-painting a boarded-up, abandoned McDonald’s. Shortly after Hernandez was taken into custody, he went into cardiac arrest and subsequently died in the hospital, a casualty of the cops’ decision to shock him with a stun gun. It turned out that the officer responsible for the Tasering, Jorge Mercaco, has a history of being accused of using excessive force—the Miami New Times reported on Thursday that he once arrested of a woman who did nothing more than ask him for directions, and in 2008 Mercado and another officer beat and Tasered an Iraq war veteran and his friend. (None of these accusations led to the officer being disciplined.)
Mercado remains on administrative leave, which is typical when a suspect dies after a police action. An autopsy of Hernandez is pending, along with three different investigations by the local DA, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the Miami Beach police department’s internal affairs division. The cops, naturally, are defending Mercado’s choice to use the weapon on Hernandez. It remains to be seen whether the police officially misused their Tasers, since Hernandez supposedly refused to obey their commands and was arguably a potential threat—the cops claim the teenager ran at them when they cornered him, and police chief Ray Martinez told the Miami Herald, “The officers were forced to use the Taser to avoid a physical incident.” But is it policy to aggressively chase a kid for graffiting an abandoned building? And should it be?
Tasers aren’t a bad invention, and even help save lives in situations where cops would otherwise be firing real guns—but they’re also too often a crutch for law enforcement. Instead of being wielded by brave officers who use them to avoid killing dangerous lawbreakers, Tasers are often used by mean or lazy cops to neutralize such non-threats as streakers, pregnant women who are pissed about parking tickets, disorderly ten-year-olds, the mentally disabled, and lost autistic children.
End the War on Baby Deer
Two weeks ago, a 13-person armed raid consisting of nine Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource (DNR) agents and four sheriff’s deputies served a search warrant on an animal shelter in order to seize and exterminate a contraband baby deer named Giggles. The abandoned fawn had been brought by a concerned family to the St. Francis Society shelter in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and stayed for about two weeks (the plan was to take Giggles to a wildlife reserve, a move that would have happened the day after the raid). But housing wildlife is illegal in Wisconsin due to concerns over diseases, and soon enough two anonymous busybodies called in a tip about the deer. The authorities reacted to the threat by immediately mobilizing (they even used aerial photos to track and confirm the existence of Giggles) and came to the shelter looking “like a SWAT team,” according to a shelter employee.
The law itself may seem cruel to Bambi fans, or coldly sensible to those worried about people keeping potentially disease-carrying wild animals as pets, but the issue isn’t the law so much as the bizarre method of enforcement—instead of taking Giggles to a reserve, the DNR sedated her, put her in a “body bag” and took her elsewhere to be killed.
Local news station WISN interviewed Jennifer Niemeyer, a supervisor for the DNR, who dismissed the idea that the cops should have talked to the shelter before they used force, comparing it to warning drug dealers before a raid. “They don’t call [drug offenders] and ask them to voluntarily surrender their marijuana or whatever drug that they have before they show up,” she said. No, they don’t. But they might start considering it.
Though SWAT-like tactics are most often used in narcotics cases, aggressive police raids (which don’t always involve SWAT teams) are now used more and more frequently for nonviolent lawbreaking. Examples range from FDA feeling the need to go guns-out while fighting the scourge of raw milk, to SWAT teamsostensibly checking liquor licenses at bars and strip clubs before searching employees and patrons for drugs, to a raid targeting Gibson Guitars after the company bought wood that wasn’t finished properly before being exported from India, to IRS agents training with assault rifles. Law enforcement agencies of all stripes can’t seem to get their heads around the notion that while their jobs might sometimes involve using guns and battering rams just like TV cops, they don’t always need to use force. For instance, they could try knocking politely on a door or making a phone call before they raid an animal shelter and kill a baby deer.
DEA Raids Legal Weed Dispensaries in Washington Again
Last Wednesday, at least four medical marijuana dispensaries in Washington state—where even recreational use of pot is legal in small amounts—got quite a scare when the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)came calling. The clinics, all of which had been targeted back in 2011, were supposedly not abiding by state law, which is the often cited, albeit quizzical, justification for a federal raid.
In Washington, one dispensary owner initially worried he was being robbed. Other owners throughout the state feared this was the beginning of an official federal crackdown—the Department of Justice had decided to deal with states where recreational weed use is legal by sending in the DEA. But a source told Seattle’s King-5 that the raids took place because those specific marijuana outfits had the same problems they had in 2011, not because of any new federal policy.
In lieu an official federal policy toward states that have legalized medical marijuana, this ad hoc, willy-nilly method of policing has become the norm, and you might not be too off base if you assumed that the DOJ’s unspoken strategy was to kill the industry by a million paper cuts.
According to Americans for Safe Access, the Obama administration has spent $300 million on medical marijuana raids since 2009. Crackdowns have lead to serious jail time for dispensary owners in MichiganandMontana. No arrests were made this week in Washington, but several thousand dollars in marijuana was seized, along with cell phones, papers, and computers. The DEA also started the process of seizing a boat through asset forfeiture. Supposedly these dispensaries were laundering money and providing marijuana to nonpatients, which is possible. It should also have been up to the state to decide if state law was being broken.
Bad Cop Blotter: Routine Raid Terror
On Wednesday, a 59-year-old nurse named Louise Goldsberry was in her apartment in Sarasota, Florida, having dinner with her boyfriend, when a squad of heavily-armed men appeared at her door. They said they were police, but Louise wasn’t so sure. One of them was pointing a gun at her through the kitchen window, and when they stormed through the door, a disconcerting light shining in her eyes, she was terrified. “We’re the fucking police, open the fucking door!” the cops were screaming. She grabbed her (legal) revolver—the men who said they were cops told her to drop it and she shouted “I’m an American citizen!” back at them.
It was the kind of situation where someone could have easily died. Luckily, Craig Dorris, Lousie’s boyfriend, had the presence of mind to ask the officers for ID and reassured her that these guys really were cops. She eventually put the gun down, and the officers cuffed her and her boyfriend, searched her house, and were gone in half an hour. No one was charged with any crime whatsoever.
The police were searching the apartment complex for a suspected child rapist eventually found in another part of the city. The cops said later that they had no reason to believe that the suspect was in Goldsberry’s apartment. But they told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that nobody in the other apartments had reacted to their door-pounding, barked commands, or commando gear with hesitation, and that made them suspicious. So they opened Louise’s door without permission and—not surprisingly, since this is gun-happy Florida—found themselves looking down the barrel of a privately-owned firearm.
US Marshall Matt Wiggins, who was part of the raid, thinks everything the cops did was hunky-dory. “I went above and beyond. I have to go home at night,” he told the Herald-Tribune. He also suggested that since Goldsberry wasn’t arrested—merely cuffed for a half hour—or shot there was no reason to go to the media with her story. Though he said “I feel bad for [Louise],” he also scoffed at the notion that she didn’t realize immediately that the armed men at her door were the police.