This year we learned, again, that the people who are in charge of the police and prisons have no idea what they were doing. Law enforcement as a whole was awful, individual cops and departments were worse. Lives were ruined and dogs were shot. Here's...
Photo via Flickr user fdecomite
This year we learned, again, that the people who are in charge of enforcing the law have no idea what they were doing. Major news stories on the NSA’s epic surveillance program, prisoner abuse at Guantanamo Bay, and the ongoing use of drones to kill people all over the Middle East showed just how deeply rooted the US’s military-law-enforcement-surveillance-prison-industrial complex is, and how at every turn there seem to be more abuses perpetrated either by the administrators responsible for these programs or the rank-and-file officers who weren’t given enough oversight or direction. The silver lining is that media outlets, individual reporters, and advocacy organizations from across the ideological spectrum have been banging the drum louder than ever and forcing us to pay attention to the evils of our criminal justice system. This year brought us journalist Radley Balko’s book on the militarization of the police, documentarian Eugene Jarecki’s feature-length indictment of the war on drugs, and a continuation of the excellent coverage of prisons and cops we’ve come to expect from Mother Jones, Reason, the ACLU, and other civil libertarian standbys.
Maybe this enthusiastic advocacy will someday lead to major reforms. Maybe we’ll even reminisce about 2013 as the year the long trend of incarceration and overaggressive policing finally broke. There were a few bright spots, after all: Bipartisan support for bills intended to reduce the harm done by mandatory minimum sentencing laws inspired Attorney General Eric Holder to offer his own modest reforms in that area. Washington and Colorado voted to allow the sale of recreational marijuana, thereby pounding a few more nails into the drug war’s eventual coffin. From today’s vantage point, however, 2013 mostly looks like another brick in a vast concrete wall—law enforcement as a whole was awful, individual cops and departments were worse. Lives were ruined and dogs were shot. Apropos of all that, here are a few “awards” for the guys with badges. There’s no prize money, just a faint hope that these dubious honors won't need to be handed out again.
Most Racist Police Department: New York City
The country’s biggest police force would be hard-pressed not to wind up with some very awkward incidents—when you have 34,000 officers, some of them are going to mess up. But a few bad apples can’t be blamed for the NYPD’s stop and frisk program or its CIA-style monitoring of Muslims. For all the cops’ spying on mosques, they produced no useful tips, and stop and frisk didn’t lead to many arrests either. Between January 2002 and June 2012, nearly 4.5 million New Yorkers were stopped on the street and searched for drugs or weapons, and nearly 90 percent weren't doing anything illegal. The majority of these searches were performed on black or hispanic individuals, giving the whole thing a strong stink of prejudice. Though the policy’s supporters—including lame-duck Mayor Mike Bloomberg—claim this makes the city safer and that minorities aren’t singled out because of their skin color, civil liberties activists begged to differ and sued in 2010. In August, a federal judge ordered reforms and oversight to the officially racist policy, but two months later she was dismissed from the case for being biased against the city. Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has pledged to reform the practice once he takes office in January, even if some cops oppose his efforts.
Most Kafkaesque Definition of “Assault”: New York City, Again
A Manhattan grand jury, faced with the case of officers who shot two bystanders during an effort to apprehend an unarmed mentally unstable man in October, have decided assault charges are warranted, which makes sense given that, well, two people were shot. Except they have declined to charge the officers who shot the women, instead blaming the unstable man who had been darting in between cars and causing a bit of a scene on the day in question. He forced the cops to pull out their weapons and fire, apparently, and also made them miss. (By the way, he was eventually brought down by a Taser.)
Photo via Flickr user David Shankbone
Most Justly Earned Settlement: Daniel Chong
In April 2012, Daniel Chong, then 23 years old, was put into custody when a DEA task force raided his friend’s house. Put in a holding cell and told he wouldn’t be charged, Chong was left alone for the next four days without food or water. Chong was reduced to drinking his own urine to survive, and at one point he was so sure he was going to die he attempted to leave a note of farewell to his mother by breaking his glasses and carving “Sorry Mom” into his arm. After his was finally found, Chong was hospitalized for five days. On July 25, 2013, Chong settled with the federal government for $4.1 million. According to Chong’s attorney, the DEA said they intended to institute national standards that included cameras in cells, as well as daily checks on detained suspects.
Worst Asshole in Law Enforcement: Joe Arpaio
Where to begin with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio? The 81-year-old media whore has been elected six times, in spite of costing taxpayers millions of dollars, thanks to the numerous and justified lawsuits filed against him. First nationally known for bringing back chain gangs and attempting to humiliate inmates by making them wear pink underwear, Arpaio’s definition of law and order includes housing inmates in tent cities and jails that reach dangerous temperatures in the summer, serving cheap, rotten food, and, most recently, mandating patriotism in his prisoners. He aggressively pursues immigrants who crossed the border illegally—so much so that the Department of Justice has sued him for discrimination and disallowed him from enforcing immigration laws at all—but his deputies have ignored scores of sexual assault reports. In May, soon after a federal judge found that Arpaio had unconstitutionally targeted Latinos in his policing, he survived yet another recall attempt. Arizonans can’t seem to get enough of their racist uncle. God bless democracy.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Photo via
Most Racist K9 Officers: Los Angeles County
According to data compiled by the Police Assessment Resource Center, in the first half of the year, LA County Sheriff’s Department police dogs bit only non-white suspects. This is likely because K9 units were usually deployed in less affluent neighborhoods where crime is more common, but it could be argued that police dogs should only be used in very serious criminal incidents, since their use often leads to suspects getting seriously injured.
Most Cowardly Pet Killing, Dog Category: Antoine Jones of Georgia
On October 7, Antoine Jones, a six-foot, 300-pound probation officer, went to the Albany, Georgia, home of Cherrie Shelton, as he had multiple times in the past in order to check up on her son. As Jones walked to the door, Shelton’s 12-pound Jack Russell terrier Patches ran outside barking at him. Shelton told the local news she tried to explain that Patches didn’t bite, but before she could finish, Jones shot her dog, who died half an hour later. The officer said in a report he was threatened by the tiny dog, but though the Georgia Department of Corrections initially supported him, an internal investigation of the incident was reportedly opened at the end of October.
Most Cowardly Pet killing, Non-Dog Category: Unnamed NYPD Officers
According to a lawsuit filed by Evelyn Lugo, during a legally dubious raid on her home in September 2012 a New York cop stomped the family’s pet parakeet to death while yelling, “Fuck the bird!” The injuries to several family members are documented in photographs, so it’s quite possible the bird-murder portion of the complaint is accurate as well. RIP Tito the bird.
Most Cowardly Pet Killing, in Front of Children Category: Barry Accorti of Ohio
On June 10, a North Ridgeville, Ohio, police officer responded to a call to remove five feral kittens from a yard. According to the homeowner, officer Barry Accorti told her that the cats were going to “kitty heaven,” as the shelters were full, then shot them all 15 feet from her door. Her children saw the whole thing and were naturally hysterical, and the woman was baffled that Accorti would murder cats so casually within their earshot. Though the North Ridgeville Police Department’s Facebook page was swamped by threats and complaints when the story came out, chief Mike Freeman said his officer’s “actions were appropriate.”
SWAT team members prepare for a training exercise. Photo via the Oregon Department of Transportation
Most Unnecessary Use of SWAT Tactics, Cute Animal Category: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
In July, a nine-person team from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources raided the St. Francis Society shelter in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in order to capture and kill a fawn named Giggles that had been rescued by the owner of the shelter. Though keeping wild animals is indeed illegal in Wisconsin, the shelter planned to move Giggles the following day, and in any case it doesn’t seem like it would take a whole squad—including four sheriff’s deputies—to foil this particular crime. Anyway, Giggles is dead now.
Most Unnecessary Use of SWAT Tactics, Plant Category: Cops in Arlington, Texas
In early August, the Garden of Eden, an organic farm in Arlington, was the recipient of a SWAT raid that lasted for ten hours. The police in had a warrant to search for marijuana, but they found no plants, and the only purpose the guns-out assault on the farm seemed to serve was to enforce a bunch of city codes related to gardening, grass-cutting, and chopped wood not being properly stacked.
Most Unnecessary Death of a Suspect, Taser Category: Cops in Miami
Tasers are generally less lethal than firearms, but they are unquestionably deadly at times, especially when fired at a person’s chest. On August 6, 18-year-old graffiti artist Israel Hernandez Llach became one of the highest profile Tasering victims after he got caught tagging a boarded-up McDonald’s by Miami police. Instead of letting the kid go, the cops decided to escalate things and pursued by foot and cruiser. When Israel allegedly ran towards an officer after being cornered, the teenager was Tasered once in the chest—minutes later he was dead. The family has filed a lawsuit, and autopsy results have not been revealed.
Clearest Sign That “Field Testing” for Drugs Doesn’t Mean Shit: The Pennsylvania Cops’ Accidental Detention of an Innocent Couple
Last week, a New York couple who were accused of smuggling cocaine with intent to distribute were freed after a month in jail when it was discovered that they didn’t have any coke on them after all. Oops. Annadel Cruz and Alexander Bernstein were pulled over on November 13 for driving slightly over the speed limit and too near the side of the lane, and the state trooper found a small amount of (actual) marijuana and a brick of homemade soap, which a “field test” showed contained cocaine. Except it didn’t contain shit, and on December 13, the Lehigh County, Pennsylvania district attorney dropped the charges.
A memorial for a homeless man killed by cops in LA. Photo by Paul T. Bradley
Police Shooting Victim Least Valued by Society: "Donald"
On October 6, a homeless man was shot by the LA County Sheriff’s Department for “wielding a wooden stick” an incident that was covered by VICE’s Paul T. Bradley but mostly ignored by everyone else. It’s only thanks to Bradley we know that the man’s first name was Donald, his homeless acquaintances thought of him as harmless and friendly, and he had been recently harassed by the cops for jaywalking. Several witnesses said that Donald never had a stick at all, and that the final shot was fired at him when he was already on the ground. The shooting sounds unjustified, to say the least, but the only media account of it I can find, other than the VICE story, is a blurb in the Los Angeles Times.
Most Surprising Instance of Cops Being Held Accountable: The Fullerton, California, Police Department
Meanwhile, over in Fullerton, two former cops are currently on trial for the July 5, 2011 beating death of 37-year-old Kelly Thomas, who suffered from schizophrenia. Regardless of what happens in the courtroom, the fact that the case got this far is a credit to Thomas’s ex-cop father and some determined community members who refused to shut up about it.
Worst Federal Law Enforcement Agency, Second Runner-Up: The ATF
As I mentioned just last week, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) has had a rough time in the last few decades, and the last few years have not improved its dodgy reputation—for example, they lost 2,000 guns in Mexico during the ill-advised Fast and Furious program. Now it’s been revealed that the ATF have behaved in a similarly appalling fashion on US soil by opening fake storefronts and performing sting operations on mentally disabled drug addicts while letting potentially dangerous felons leave with illicit firearms.
Worst Federal Law Enforcement Agency, First Runner-Up: The DEA
In a perfect world, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) wouldn’t exist at all. In a slightly improved world, the DEA would stay clear of any state in which marijuana is legal for recreational or medical use. We live in this world, however, so it counts as huge news that after two states voted to end marijuana prohibition, Attorney General Eric Holder hemmed and hawed for months before saying the Department of Justice would stand down and respect state law… mostly. But the DEA is about more than just drug raids. On September 2 it was revealed that the agency also has a secret database of phone records and what's more, they sometimes start drug investigations using tips handed to them by the NSA.
Worst Federal Law Enforcement Agency: The NSA
The NSA isn’t supposed to be a law enforcement agency, technically—it’s mission is to monitor foreigners and stop terrorists and other James Bond–caliber supervillains. But technicalities be damned, the agency is clearly sucking up a staggering amount of information on American citizens, no matter how much they plead that they're doing so unintentionally. Ever since June, when former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden revealed that he got away with allegedly millions of documents from his former employers, the dirty dealings of what was once referred to as “No Such Agency” has been the story that won’t go away. For good reason: The NSA tracks cellphone location data and metadata in its mighty collection dragnet and it has access to data sent by just about every tech giant you care to name. The NSA’s director lied to Congress back in March, and so far efforts to rein in his agency have failed or were toothless from the start. The good news is that on December 16 a federal judge ruled that the NSA’s mass data collection violates the Fourth Amendment, which suggests eventual reform is at least possible.
Good Cop of the Year: Utah’s Chris Burbank
Throughout the year, many cops have saved people from burning buildings or dangerous criminals, arrested people who were genuine threats, and made their communities safer. What’s more rare is a cop who stands distinctly in opposition to modern policing’s worst, most dangerous practices. That’s why the Good Cop of the Year has to be Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank. Burbank expressly opposes prioritizing officer safety above anything else and refuses to embrace the us-versus-them mentality common in police departments across the country. In 2011, he personally explained to the city’s local Occupy movement when and why they had to leave their encampment, giving them plenty of time to gather their belongings and leave—or be carefully arrested if they so chose. In protest situations, he keeps his riot cops back because they tend to aggravate people into confrontations. Even more impressive and controversial, his officers don’t enforce immigration laws. Finally, instead of blaming disastrous drug raids like the one that killed Matthew David Stewart in 2011 on the homeowner, Burbank has taken such tragedies as a hint that the SWAT-heavy status quo is not safe for cops or for citizens. If every police chief believed, as Burbank does, that “[The cops] aren't an occupying force. We are a part of the community,"this column wouldn’t exist at all.