Fairly frequently, you'll hear somebody chime in with the thought that if you're not doing anything wrong, you have no reason to fear the police. Recent news hasn't been kind to that quaint notion.
In early July, Jackson County Florida deputy Zachary Wester was charged with 52 counts of racketeering, false imprisonment and fabricating evidence among other charges for allegedly pulling over drivers at random and planting meth or marijuana in their vehicles or personal effects. According to the Washington Post, 119 cases have been dropped and 263 are in review. In one instance apparently captured on body cam, a woman is pulled over because her brake lights "work one minute, the next they don't." Wester proceeds to perform a plainly visible sleight of hand to suddenly produce a bag of drugs from her purse.
A week or so later, the Philadelphia Police Department announced the firing of 13 officers and the reprimand or suspension of another 50 for Facebook posts deemed racist, misogynist, or encouraging violence. BuzzFeed revealed that some posts referred to blacks as "animals", called for "death to Islam", and said of refugees "Let them starve to death".
As of this writing, New York City is bracing for potential unrest when a decision is announced over departmental charges against Officer Daniel Pantaleo. In a July 2014 incident famously captured on cell phone video that helped galvanize the nascent Black Lives Matter movement, 43-year-old Eric Garner is shown being wrestled to the ground and restrained after refusing to be handcuffed for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. He is heard declaring, "I can't breathe" nearly a dozen times. While the New York Medical Examiner's office ruled Garner's death a homicide — the result of an asthma attack brought on by "compression of the neck (chokehold) and chest" — Pantaleo was cleared by a grand jury inquiry months later.
According to the New York Post, an unnamed police source says NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill will "lose all respect from rank-and-file cops" if Pantaleo is recommended to be fired.
Also making the rounds last month was news of a lawsuit filed by a Georgia woman who was arrested for possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute in December 2016. Due to crime lab backlogs, she spent three months in jail waiting for results that would prove the sack of "drugs" found in her vehicle was melted cotton candy discarded by her daughter's friend. She was cleared of the charges, but the arrest remains on her record. Why was she pulled over? Tinted windows aroused suspicion, apparently. When she attempted to explain what the stuff was to the arresting officers, did they exercise any discretion or common sense? Of course not. Did they exercise "Command Presence"? Absolutely.
In a 1992 spoken word appearance, Henry Rollins went on a riff about "Command Presence," which is a basic tenet of law enforcement training. The goal is to project a sense of authority and control in any given situation. The online publication Law Officer describes it as "looking sharp, being sharp, and acting sharp," and that it is "the first level of force in the use of force continuum."
Rollins described it as, "when they pull you over for an illegal left turn and act like it's the invasion of Poland."
All of the above raises the the age-old question: "Who polices the police?"
Not their leaders, that's for certain. Never mind the infamous "Blue Wall of Silence" — we're talking about a "Blue Wall of Unimpeachable Nobility." There's never been a bad actor in their midst, never someone ill-trained or quite simply ill-suited to the job. Madison Police Chief Mike Koval never met a cop who wasn't a selfless hero casting his or herself into the breach on a daily basis to protect us all. A quick Google search of O'Neill's Twitter posts reveals endless paeans to the courage and greatness of his officers.
Recent events in Madison regarding the (command) presence of school resource officers in district schools with a significant number of minority students have become a flash point. To many, having cops around should be a no-brainer; we do live in a society in which somebody seems to shoot up a school every other week, after all. Others, however, engaged in animated protests at school board meetings, citing cops as agents of an inherently unjust system: an institutionalized "school to prison pipeline." They're not interested in any sort of command presence.
But never mind the very understandable lack of trust between minority communities and law enforcement. The truth is that most of us, whatever our circumstances are, endeavor to avoid any sort of contact with police whatsoever. The less command presence the better.
On balance, most of us probably feel that most police officers are good women and men trying to do a difficult and often thankless job, and we appreciate and respect that. But subconsciously, the last thing you want to see in your rear view mirror is one of those vehicles. You start to wonder if some of those Tic-Tacs you spilled under the seat six months ago are still there and might arouse suspicion. And if you're a black man, well, all kinds of stuff goes through your head.
Most of us might not want to admit it, but on some level we fear that stories like the above barely scratch the surface. For law enforcement, that's a fairly significant public relations problem.
Bryan Sabella lives in Fitchburg and works in inventory management.
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