Cops in Brooklyn, 1990. Photo via Flickr user Cristee Dickson
On October 11, 2011, Florida Highway Patrol trooper Donna Jane Watts saw someone driving a Miami police cruiser way over the speed limit, so she attempted to stop him. The driver reportedly took seven minutes to pull over the cop car, making Watts even more antsy over whether she was dealing with someone who was taking a cruiser for a joyride at 120 miles per hour. It turned out that the driver was a uniformed, on-duty officer named Fausto Lopez, who apologized to Watts and said he was late for an off-duty job. Watts arrested him anyway. He was breaking the law.
Lopez was later fired, but according to the Associated Press, Watts was subjected to a campaign of harassment, prank calls, and anonymous threats from people she suspects were fellow officers. Police vehicles and unmarked cars idled near her house. Freaking out, she even did a public records request to confirm that, yes, the police were accessing information from her driver’s license—88 officers from 25 agencies had looked her up more than 200 times in one three-month period. She’s now suing the cops and departments involved for improperly accessing her info, though many of the cops who looked at her license have been reprimanded and the agencies involved say such searches are only illegal if the information gets sold. No matter what happens in court, this is a disturbing picture of the “thin blue line” of cops who don’t look kindly on an officer who goes after another officer.
There are no statistics available to describe how often cops cover up for one another, but former cops have described participating in illegal searches, perjuring themselves, and all kinds of other shady dealings since at least the days of NYPD whistleblower Frank Serpico in the 60s.
Officers who attempt to break away from this system can get into trouble. Consider what happened to former NYPD cop Adrian Schoolcraft after he began taping conversations with his superiors back in 2009 in order to prove they were pressuring cops to make specific numbers of arrests and downplay serious crimes. After he began to speak out, Schoolcraft was restricted to desk duty and was told to talk to a psychologist.
On Halloween night 2009, Schoolcraft left work a little early, feeling ill and stressed. He woke up a few hours later to 12 officers, including Deputy Chief Michael Marino, entering his apartment. Schoolcraft taped the encounter, some of which can be heard on a 2010 episode of NPR’s This American Life. After some back and forth arguing, Schoolcraft was involuntarily committed to a local psych ward and handcuffed to the bed. After six days, his father, a former police officer, finally found his son and got him out. Schoolcraft later took his story to The Village Voice, and it was written up in a series called the NYPD Tapes that generally confirmed his allegations about his precinct. Some of his tapes were also used in the 2010 federal lawsuit against stop and frisk. In going against his fellow officers, Schoolcraft was doing more for the cause of justice than anyone who attempted to quiet him. We could use more people like Schoolcraft and Watts, who are willing to occasionally cross that stupid thin blue line.
On to the bad cops of the week:
–Shawn Musgrave, of the transparency-focused blog Muckrock, wrote on Friday that the NYPD had rejected his request through the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL, the state’s public records access law) for information on how the NYPD handles FOIL requests for various documents. The cops’ official excuse for denying this somewhat meta request is that an attorney-client privilege exists between NYPD officers and the lawyers who create their training handbooks, but Musgrave thinks this is ridiculous and just one more example of the department finding ways to deny FOIL requests for flimsy reasons.
–A deaf advocacy group in California just filed a lawsuit on behalf of a man who was allegedly beaten, Tasered, and arrested by police when he tried to use sign language to communicate. According to Jonathan Meister, on the evening of February 13, 2013, he was picking up some of his belongings from a friend’s house in Hawthorne, California. Four local cops, called by a worried neighbor, approached him, assuming a robbery was taking place. They yelled at him to stop loading his car, and when he didn’t respond, one officer grabbed his wrist. Meister then attempted to sign that he was deaf, but this was seen as resistance, and Meister was punched, Tasered, and knocked unconscious. Since this is so obviously terrifying and fucked, Meister, with help from the Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness, is suing the four officers for violating his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
–On Valentine's Day, police in Moore, Oklahoma, were involved in an altercation with a man named Luis Rodriguez that left the man dead outside of a movie theater around midnight. Luis, who had been trying to mediate a fight between his wife and daughter, was trying to stop his wife Nair from leaving when two on-duty officers, an off-duty cop, and (strangely enough) two game wardens stopped him and asked for an ID. Luis apparently struggled, still trying to reach his wife. Nair and her daughter Lunahi said that police then began beating Luis until his face was bloody. According to Nair, her husband seemed to be dead when he was taken away on a stretcher. She also filmed the encounter, but police took her phone. (An autopsy has not yet determined the cause of Luis's death.)
–On Thursday, 27-year-old Kayla Finley went to the police department of Pickens, South Carolina, to make a report. But she soon found herself jailed for the night over the late fees she owed for a nine-years-overdue Jennifer Lopez movie. Finley says she never received the letters that told her to return the movie, nor the follow-up that specified there was now a warrant out for her arrest. The video store she rented it from, by the way, is no longer in business, probably because they failed to collect late fees.
–Our Good Cop of the Week Award goes to NYPD officer Matthew Hartnett, who on Tuesday rescued a 74-year-old man from his burning vehicle. The man had suffered a seizure, then crashed his car into a concrete divider. With help from a bystander, Harnett blocked traffic with his car, then broke the glass and pulled out the unconscious man, who is now in stable condition.