What I Learned Writing About Bad Cops for a Year and a Half

I've been writing this Bad Cop Blotter column for more than 18 months, and the pre-Ferguson, post-Ferguson divide is palpable—if only in a media-giving-a-shit kind of a way.

|
Mar 2 2015, 7:25pm

Photo via Flickr user Annette Bernhardt

Though polls can always remind us that most Americans (and about half of nonwhite ones) tend to trust law enforcement to keep them safe, something has changed since last August. I've been writing this Bad Cop Blotter column for more than a year and a half, and the pre-Ferguson, post-Ferguson divide is palpable—if only in a media-giving-a-shit kind of a way.

Since Michael Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson, there has been a major surge in the attention the mainstream media gives to the police. Even after the murder of two NYPD officers in December, and a subsequent pro-cop backlash, the news folk appear to have learned that people want to know what armed enforcers of state, local, and federal laws are up to. In addition, it's possible that reporters assume law enforcement sources are telling the truth a little less often after the still-disputed incidents that led to Brown's demise—not to mention the consensus that Eric Garner didn't need to die via chokehold.

But unanimous horror over Eric Garner and his cries of "I can't breathe" is one thing; fixing this mess is another. The problems facing law enforcement and its relationship with the public are enormous, and they're divided into poisonous, spiny slices. It's not just local police, and it's not just federal authorities. It's local cops, and it's federal money. It's dangerous and unnecessary laws against vices like drugs, prostitution, and gambling—and it's the conduct of individual bad cops. It is mission creep. It is excess war gear going to police departments, and it is the feeling that police are at war with the people whom they ostensibly serve. It is police who don't understand mental illness, or physical disabilities such as deafness—or rather, it is police who pull the trigger too quickly on even suspects who don't understand what's happening.

It is racial bias in policing, and it is also the existence of laws against selling loose cigarettes. It is the idea that laws are unquestionable and inarguable—and that means never just letting a cigarette seller or a fleeing graffiti artist get away unchased.

It is the ease with which everyone accepts the policy of kicking down a door to search for an illicit plant—to the detriment of homeowner and police officer alike. It is the Supreme Court decisions that back up these actions, and the lax civil asset forfeiture laws that incentivize so many of those thousands of SWAT raids that happen every year. It is more and more anecdotes of horrible incidents piling up, but a lack of complete data on how often cops actually use their guns nationwide.

If you write a column like Bad Cop Blotter—and no, that name was never exactly accurate—you're going to get accustomed to a handful of reactions. On the rare occasion on which you highlight a cop who used lethal force in what appears to be a fair and necessary manner, you will be called a hack. Most of the time, when questioning police behavior in a high-tension, dangerous—or seemingly dangerous, if the gun turns out to be just a pellet gun—situation, you will get criticism. Could you do it? Could you decide when to shoot, or when to use a Taser, or when to just talk it out? No, I personally couldn't, and I don't want to. Luckily for me, there's no law enforcement draft; every one of the roughly 800,000 law enforcement officers wanted to be a cop badly enough to, well, become one.

Asking for more from the guys and gals with guns and badges is not a personal insult towards your uncle or your grandma who was a cop and who in all likelihood never fired their gun on duty. But it is fair to say, OK, you want this tough job? You want to be as brave and important as you say you are? Then we're going to badger you, the way we should all public servants. Especially the ones who can rid of us of the myriad horrible laws you enforce. You police have a power, which is backed by societal trust, and a long legal leash. We are going to hold you to that. And we're going to do a better job of it than we have before.

That's all this was ever supposed to be.

Now—for one final time—here are this week's bad cops (for coverage of future police indecencies, check out VICE News' excellent Officer-Involved blog):

-On Sunday, LAPD officers shot and killed a man reportedly known locally as "Africa" on Los Angeles's Skid Row. VICE has coverage of the incident, which was capture on at least one camera, here.

-It seems like when a 12-year-old boy holding a fake gun gets killed, someone besides the boy might be to blame. Not so, said the city of Cleveland on Friday, when it officially responded to a lawsuit filed by the family of Tamir Rice, who was killed by Cleveland Police Officer Timothy Loehmann in November. According to the city, Rice is at fault for his own death, not the officer who drove up way too close to him, not Loehmann, not Loehmann's supervisors, who had complained about his work problems, but still let him do the job. No, it's the dead 12-year-old's fault for being shot.

-The Department of Justice is set to release its report on the Ferguson Police Department's racially-biased traffic stops any time now. In brief: The Ferguson cops need to either get that shit figured out, or they will probably face a federal lawsuit. A separate DOJ probe into whether Michael Brown's killing was a civil rights violation could also come down soon, though it's not expected to produce charges against Darren Wilson.

-In 2012, Douglas Dendinger agreed to serve papers to Bogalusa, Louisiana, police officer Chad Cassard, on behalf of his nephew, who was filing a brutality lawsuit. He did so and says he was cursed at, the papers thrown back in his face. Then, 20 minutes after he got home, Dendinger, 47, was arrested for battery on Cassard. Two prosecutors and five cops witnessed the incident, and they all backed up the battery claim. One prosecutor claimed he hit the cop so hard, she was sure he had been punched. Two police officers said Dendinger fled from the scene, even though he is disabled.

Soon after his arrest, then DA Walter Reed officially charged him with the crime, and because of a previous cocaine charge, Dendinger says he could have faced up to 80 years in prison. Thankfully, some fuzzy cellphone footage filmed by his wife and nephew helped clarify the flimsy quality of the charges against him. Reed's office was prevented from pursuing the case due to the conflict of interest, and the Louisiana Attorney General's office dropped the case. Now Dendinger has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Bogalusa cops, the DA's office, and Washington Parish Sheriff Randy Seal. They're all denying the allegations, but why exactly would they have let Dendinger get away if he violently assaulted a cop in front of the rest of them? It sure looks like without the cell phone footage, Dendinger's life might have been essentially over thanks to an appalling level of collusion between the prosecutors and the cops. Everyone involved here should be out of a job.

-Philadelphia DA R. Seth Williams penned an editorial defending the city's $6 million a year civil asset forfeiture racket Sunday, blaming drugs for the violence and devastation of communities that have been move ravaged by the war on drugs. Not that he has a vested interest in that opinion, or anything.

-Police in Wilmington, North Carolina, and the New Hanover Sheriff's Department department kicked down the wrong door on Thursday. The woman who suffered the brunt of that assault didn't wish to release her name, but she told local press that police broke down her door early in the morning, threw her out of bed when she asked for time to get dressed, and cuffed her wrists, bruising them and her knees. After several minutes, police realized their error, and took off. As Wilmington Police and the New Hanover Sheriff's Department pointed fingers at each other, Wilmington Police spokeswoman Linda Rawley magnanimously admitted that a mistake did indeed take place, but then noted that the woman was wanted on child support payments, so they totally could have arrested her if they had wanted to anyway.

-Miami Gardens, Florida's police chief was arrested in a prostitution sting this weekend. Stephen Johnson, 53, says he answered an escort service ad due to "stress." He has been fired. Johnson's conduct is only immoral due because of its deep, deep hypocrisy.

-On Tuesday, the Guardian's Spencer Ackerman published a deeply disturbing account of some of the shady goings-on at Chicago's Homan Square, a short-term holding facility for people under arrest. Numerous attorneys said they're unable to reach clients who are taken here. One of the few former residents of Homan Square willing to speak on the record said he was shackled for 17 hours after being arrested at an anti-NATO summit protest. There are other allegations, which include beatings and the fact that suspects' records are not made public. Of course, Chicago Police are denying this, and say Homan Square is just like any other jail.

-On Wednesday, Stockton, California Police Officer Pejman Zarrin was driving on patrol when he heard the frantic honks of a 19-year-old woman whose baby was unconscious and not breathing. Zarrin and the woman drove to a gas station, and he soon figured out that the baby had inhaled milk into its lungs. Before the paramedics he called even arrived, Zarrin had whacked the baby on the back and dislodged the milk. Right place, right time? Sure. But Zarrin responded quickly and effectively to a terrified person who needed his help. That's a Good Cop of the Week, and a fine note to end on.

Follow Lucy Steigerwald on Twitter, and check out more of her work here.

More VICE
Vice Channels