We Need to Stop Trusting the Police

A pair of cops who were caught <i>on video</i> mercilessly beating Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man who died of his injuries, were acquitted of all charges last week. Was that because too many people still think of the police as the good guys?

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Jan 21 2014, 5:34pm

A memorial for Kelly Thomas, who died of injuries sustained during a beating from cops. The officers involved were recently acquitted by a jury. Photo via Flickr user Amber Stephens

Last Monday, a jury found two former Fullerton, California, police officers not guilty on 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.

That trust is buttressed by laws that grant cops various kinds of immunity against prosecution. For instance, in 2010, a Seattle cop named Ian Birk shot and killed John T. Williams, a Native American woodcarver, and after the dust settled, a review panel had found that the shooting was unjustified, Birk had resigned from the force, and the city had paid Williams’s family $1.5 million. Yet Birk never faced criminal charges for killing Williams, since under Washington state law prosecutors would have had to prove evidence of “malice or bad faith” on his part when he pulled the trigger.

In 2011, researcher David Packman, whose police misconduct project is now under the umbrella of the Cato Institute, crunched some numbers and found that police officers were significantly less likely to be charged and convicted for crimes than the general public. They also served an average of 29 percent less time in prison. Packman also found that officers were rarely charged with fatal excessive force—and what was Thomas’s death if not the result of “excessive force”? (When cops were charged with that crime, they had a relatively high conviction rate of 50 percent, but that may be a result of prosecutors being very selective about when to bring fatal excessive force charges against cops.)

Weakening these laws would maybe make cops pause before they pulled out their nightsticks and Tasers. But it would also help if ordinary people were more suspicious of the police in general. The defense attorney for one of the Fullerton cops told the media, “These peace officers were doing their jobs… They did what they were trained to do.” Presented with that sort of argument, and a video of those “peace officers” beating on a mentally disturbed homeless man, the jury should have recoiled in fear and horror. Cops’ jobs are often dangerous and full of difficult decisions, but that doesn’t excuse what happened to Kelly Thomas.

On to this week’s bad cops:

-Justin Bieber, who apparently listens to the Beastie Boys, was raided by the LA County Sheriff’s Department on Tuesday morning after allegations that he and his cronies committed felony vandalism by egging a neighbor’s house (and somehow causing a reported $20,000 in damages). Somehow, 12 police officers were necessary to investigate the incident, and while they were searching the house they found unspecified drugs and Bieber’s friend Lil Za was arrested for possession. Suckers, they come a dime a dozen, but a dozen cops don’t need to come to a door to investigate some petty neighborhood squabble.

-On the afternoon of January 15, a Houston man was cuffed for an hour by police because they saw him give spare change to a homeless man. Greg Snider was driving through Houston when he pulled into a parking lot to make a phone call. (What a law-abiding citizen!) While he was there, a man asked him for money, and Snider obliged, then drove away. A few minutes later, on a stretch of highway that was difficult to pull off of, Houston Police came up behind him, lights flashing. After Snider found a place to stop, he claims, the officer screamed at him to put his hands on the car, then cuffed him. The cop accused him of having purchased drugs, then asked permission to search his vehicle. Snider gave it, though he was baffled—he said it had been just loose change he gave to the panhandling man. The police found nothing, of course, because there was nothing to find. Snider, who has filed a complaint, says the officer was laughing at the end of the encounter and called it all a “misunderstanding.”

-An elderly man was allegedly assaulted by police for jaywalking on Sunday in New York City. Witnesses told the New York Post that the man didn’t seem to understand English, and tried to walk away from NYPD officers who were writing him a ticket for jaywalking. The cops got so upset at him that they beat him until his head was bloody.

-In early April, 59-year-old Suzanne LaFont and her 50-year-old husband Karl Anders-Peltomaa had some wine in their New York City apartment. This middle-aged night of leisure went wrong, however, when Peltomaa’s heart began to race, probably because the painkillers he was taking weren’t going well with the booze. LaFont called 911 and told dispatchers Peltomaa “was freaking out” and was on lots of medications. This resulted in the cops, and not paramedics, rolling in a few minutes later. That’s when things took a turn—as the officers arrived, the couple’s dog got loose, and by the time LaFont retrieved it and got back, her husband was being pressed against the wall and getting cuffed by one of the cops. LaFont says she told officers to stop, then touched officer Anthony Giambra on the shoulder, only to be placed under arrest herself. Giambra claims Peltomaa was disturbed and had consented to handcuffs, but also that he fought back and kicked the officer, while LaFont claims her husband was thrown on the tile floor, splitting his chin and dislocating his thumb in the process. He needed five stitches on his chin, then spent two days in the hospital in order to monitor his heart, which, if you’ll remember, was the reason the cops showed up in the first place. LaFont was put in a cell for 19 hours, and she says Giambra assured her this was all to “teach me the lesson that you are never allowed to touch a police officer.” Over the next few months, LaFont refused multiple times to plead out to disorderly conduct instead of the initial charges against her of harassment and obstructing governmental administration. Finally, on Wednesday, a New York judge dropped the charges, but it took much too long and involved much too much hardship for the couple.

-A Texas man was arrested in October and charged with a misdemeanor because he was standing on the island in the middle highway near with a sign that warned drivers of a speed trap ahead. Ron Martin was charged in Frisco, Texas, of waving homemade signs that advertise, which is illegal there. Martin claims that he’s basically just a human speed-limit sign who warns drivers not to go too fast, but the cops don’t take kindly to people trying to screw up their revenue stream—33-year-old was arrested by Thomas Mronzinski, the very officer trying to trap hasty drivers. Weirdly, it’s illegal in many places to warn fellow citizens about the cops—some states, such as Alaska and Arizona, have even outlawed the headlight flash, the most common method of warning other drivers about cops. In 2012, a Florida district judge ruled that flashing your headlights was protected speech.

-Our Good Cop of the Week award goes to the Rosenberg, Texas, officer who stopped to play catch with a lonely kid on January 18. The department posted dashcam footage of the encounter on their Facebook, so it's a story that clearly has the whiff of being partly a PR stunt. But it’s also a great example of interacting with the community without acting like an occupying army. Kudos to that unnamed officer, who found a good use of his time.

Lucy Steigerwald is a freelance writer and photographer. Read her blog here and follow her on Twitter: @lucystag