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Bad Cop Blotter

Why Are Young Black Men Still Expendable in America?

Another day, another murder.

by Lucy Steigerwald
12 August 2014, 5:00am

Cops meet citizens angry at the shooting death of Michael Brown outside police HQ in Ferguson, Missouri on Monday. Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

On Saturday afternoon in Ferguson, Missouri, an as yet-unnamed police officer fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown. There have been conflicting media reports about exactly what happened, but police say that after they told Brown and another young man to use the sidewalk, there was a physical altercation with the officer in question, and Brown tried to take the officer’s gun before beginning to flee. One witness said that Brown had his hands up while running away from the cop. Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson, who says he was walking with him, said that the officer fired after they didn’t walk on the sidewalk as ordered. Police said only that another individual was with Brown, that one of the two fought with the police officer, and that Brown was shot multiple times about 35 feet from the cop cruiser. The other individual—Johnson, presumably—was not arrested. 

A photo of Brown’s body lying face down in the street circulated on social media over the weekend. The FBI began looking into the shooting. And on Sunday, a peaceful protest turned violent after riot cops moved in, and some of the protesters started looting, leading to 32 arrests, and two police officers injured.

It’s easy to say that the looting of unrelated small businesses isn’t justified—it isn’t—and leave it at that. But the anger needs to be explored. It’s not just the loss of yet another young man’s life, but that an entire community assumes the worst of the police after this incident. It’s humanly possible that they are mistaken, but even if all the proper investigations indicate they are, the locals will doubt it. And it’s hard to blame them.

Cops need to understand that they have done a great deal to cultivate distrust over the years, particularly in minority communities, and most especially among blacks. They need to understand that they are tasked with enforcing laws against guns and drugs that have destroyed whole communities, and feed our shameful prison-industrial complex. They need to understand why this all sometimes feels like a bitter joke.

If you read PoliceOne or other websites where cops interact with each other, you can pick up the attitude that now permeates law enforcement—namely, that they are warriors going into battle. This is more than unhealthy: This idea has a casualty count.

And there just doesn’t seem to be any justice for individuals killed by police. It’s not just young black males who suffer the brunt of that, but they sure seem to be among the most expendable. On August 9, VICE News’ Natasha Lennard wrote a depressing summary of some of the New York Police Department’s most alarming incidents of shooting unarmed black men, and the lack of accountability thereafter. Bronx teenager Ramarley Graham, for example, was shot in his own home over a small amount of weed. Stop and frisk continues with “Broken Windows” policing. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

The spike in violent crime back in the 80s and early 90s was real, but many cops seem immune to statistics about crime having declined since then. The drug war as an excuse to pat down passers-by has not exactly improved the tone of police interactions with communities they supposedly serve. Police departments flush with riot gear and military technology further alienate officers from the people they are tasked with protecting. International blowback teaches us that people get pissed when an occupying army rolls into town. Police may not be an army, per se, but in practice they are too close for comfort. Many Americans do not feel protected by police, and instead feel threatened. And when someone dies by an officer’s hands, folks can’t help but assume the worst, and that the truth will never come out.

Now for the rest of this week’s bad cops:

-On Tuesday in Antioch, California, police violently arrested an as-yet unnamed man, and part of the arrest was captured on bystander video. According to a bizarrely-timid news report on the incident, however, multiple people said that police browbeat them into turning over their phones or deleting video evidence. Witnesses say the victim was a mentally ill homeless guy, and that he was handcuffed while police used a Taser, batons, and set a police dog on him. In video uploaded by one of the witnesses, you can hear the sound of a Taser being used. To clarify, cops can tell you to stand back and not “interfere” with their arrest. They might demand your phone if you film something, but they may not legally take it from you just for recording an arrest. They might act like they can take it, but don’t give in. Somebody may need you to be tough on their behalf.

-Until earlier this year, Illinois had what turned out to be an unconstitutionally broad anti-wiretapping law that was sometimes used to prevent normal people from filming the police. That law was overturned in March, but not all cops have caught up. In a video uploaded to YouTube on August 7, seven cars of Chicago Police disperse a nonviolent crowd. The video begins with a woman on camera, who has apparently been giving out massages, and she shows one officer her massage chair. The woman says the park is the place where people feel safe from the Chicago crime, and that they don’t mind cops being present, but they do resent being automatically kicked out just for being in a group. This first officer, to his credit, is listening to the woman speak her mind without throwing his weight around. Then another cop car pulls up, and a female officer—holding a cellphone—steps out of the car and instantly grabs the man filming, aggressively asks whether he had been given “permission to record me” and eventually cuffs the guy. Know your rights, as Chicagoist pointed out, but that goes for cops as well: know our rights, such as the right to film you.

-Previously at Bad Cop Blotter, I mentioned the case of Shaneen Allen, a mother of two arrested after a traffic stop in New Jersey because she was carrying her (legal in Pennsylvania) concealed weapon. In that space, I wished that at some point in the law and order chain, a cop, or the prosecutor—someone!—would have used some restraint and realized that this woman did not mean anyone harm, and should not be facing three and a half years in prison. Well, the latest news is that Allen now faces 11 and a half years in prison instead. Citizens had damn well better know the laws; for cops, they often seem more like a suggestion.

-The July 1 beating of 51-year-old Marlene Pinnock by a member of the California Highway Patrol provoked media attention and popular outrage. The CHP never released the name of the officer captured on witness video repeatedly punching the homeless Pinnock, officially to prevent her from walking into traffic and endangering herself or others. However, according to a federal lawsuit filed by Pinnock, the officer is Daniel L. Andrew—and she wants him fired. Last weekend, Pinnock told an ABC affiliate her thoughts about the incident. She said Andrew didn’t speak to her at all, and she thought “he was trying to kill me. He was just socking me with all his strength, with his hands all up over his head, giving it all he had.” CHP’s unwillingness to even name the officer suggests they are not interested in accountability. Andrew’s apparent belief that repeat punching is how you help people suggests that he should not have a job anymore.

-Internal Affairs is investigating how the Miami Police Department injured two children during a July 31 SWAT raid. During the course of the narcotics bust, the 13-year-old nephew of Bobby McClendon was allegedly hit on the head by the butt of a firearm, and McClendon’s 12-year old son received an eye injury—allegedly from the fist of a police officer who decided he was not responding to command quickly enough. Officer Delrish Moss said the nephew “ran into” the gun of the officers, and he was unaware as to how the 12-year-old was injured. McClendon disputes the accuracy of the search warrant, though Miami Police say they got the right house. Unspecified narcotics and a firearm were found in the home, but no arrests were made.

-VICE’s top cops of the week are the 10 former officers who have joined the investigation squad of the Broward County, Florida Public Defender's Office. The profiled police, including 65-year-old Allen E. Smith who supervises the other investigators, seem to have learned a lot from the experience. Or, at least, they seem to have unlearned the assumption that everyone pleading innocent to a crime is probably guilty. Turns out there are some innocent people whose freedom is in peril, and some cops who do bad things. These ex-cops are doing something totally badass to change that.

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