There is a crisis of faith in America. A crisis that exposes the deep chasms that exist in our society. Traditionally a community caretaking function, and thus deserving of the highest levels of faith, trust and respect, policing in America is now a flashpoint; a litmus test through which to determine which side of the privilege aisle you rest your head on.
A Gallup poll released last week showed that while police departments were one of the institutions that Americans on average had the highest confidence in (57% overall), this was belied by deep divides among racial and political lines. Although, it should be noted, that 57% confidence in an institution whose sole function is to protect the lives and liberties of fellow citizens is truly an abysmal number.
Mathematics suggests that this overall percentage would be higher if police departments decided to make an effort to treat black individuals with the same care and respect they seem to treat white individuals. Blacks trust police at around 34% and urban blacks even less so.
Can you blame them? After the events of the last 5 months, starting with the death of Michael Brown, through to the homicides of Eric Garner, John Crawford and Tamir Rice, through to the mass demonstrations, the no-protesting zones, the “rioting”, the curfews, the non-indictments of Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo, all of this piled onto the overwhelming yoke of stop and frisk, tough-on-crime, the drug war and a lost generation, is there any reason to expect that black Americans should trust any police officer?
Is it any surprise that there is no faith in the community caretaking function of visitor-officers, who are increasingly not a part of the community they purport to keep secure? Do we have any right to demand respect for people like Cleveland Police Patrolman Union chief Jeffrey Follmer who repeatedly refer to a slain 12-year old boy as “the male” and justify the actions of a police officer who almost immediately upon arriving at the scene shoots and kills that child? Why would any level-headed, rational, liberty-loving American give any modicum of respect to a police officer who believes, like so many before him, that it is their job to give orders and civilians’ jobs to obey and get out of the way, or die.
“How about this: Listen to police officers’ commands. Listen to what we tell you, and just stop,” he said. “I think that eliminates a lot of problems.” “I think the nation needs to realize that when we tell you to do something, do it,” he added.
This is an actual statement by an actual police officer made in 2014 in the Greatest Country in the World, with all its individual freedoms and liberties.
Is there any wonder that there is no respect for police officers, when, on the one hand our courts repeatedly remind us that there is no greater public policy interest than one that ensures the truthfulness and integrity of police officers. These are the people we pay to protect us at night as we sleep. These are the people whom we ask to step in front of bullets for us. These are the people of whom we expect honesty, compassion and a desire to “serve and protect”.
Though if you were to step into a criminal courthouse in America, you would see that there is less truthfulness and more truthiness – truth that wouldn’t stand to be held back by facts – when it comes to testimony from police officers. Is it any wonder, then, that when black Americans accused of crimes confront their Blue Uniformed accusers and listen to them twist and churn and shuffle the truth into truthiness, that they would lose all respect?
I know of no sensible, pot-smoking, drug dealing individual who, upon being approached by police officers, would roll down his windows and offer up the information that he was carrying a lot of marijuana in the car. Yet this account of spontaneous confession is among the most popular narratives to be recounted in police reports across the state and, I suspect, the country.
I am sad to report that courts accept this ludicrous version of events. Is it because they willingly turn a blind eye to a dubious report of an encounter with an eye to a greater good – getting the drugs off the street – or is it because they truly have no experience in the world that is the subject of these prosecutions that they must believe that all Americans are Police fearing first and God second. For it is true that the police “serve” and “protect” the demographic that has up to very recently been the one that overwhelmingly populates our judicial benches.
Malice is not required to discriminate against others and I am certainly not implying that such malice exists. The injustice is a product of the way the system is set up and has been for decades.
Yet how do we ask our fellow citizens to trust and respect the police, especially when dishonest behavior on their part is not only not punished by our courts, but rewarded.
Earlier this week, our supreme court reinstated the employment of a police officer who had been terminated for lying while on the job. In a 3-2 opinion [PDF], the majority concluded that while there existed a strong public policy in requiring police officers to be honest, because this particular officer’s lies weren’t frequent or under oath, it wasn’t worth him getting fired. They cite to Brady v. Maryland as an example of the police’s duty to be honest and seek justice, which is ironic, because a prosecutor in Texas has just filed suit against his office for firing him for disclosing exculpatory information. But back to this case.
Officer Justin Loschiavo, of Stratford, CT, was suffering from epilepsy but had them under control. One day, in 2009, he suffered a seizure, lost control of his patrol car and struck two other vehicles. While no one was injured, he was removed from patrol duty. Over the course of the next 6-9 months, he sought to be reinstated. To that end he got clearance from his personal physician and then met with someone the town had hired to evaluate him.
Turns out, he removed documents pertaining to his seizures and his alcohol use from the file that he turned over to the town’s doctor. It was for this lie that the town sought to terminate him.
The majority makes a big deal of the fact that he didn’t lie to other officers or in the performance of his duties, but as the dissent from Justice Palmer points out [PDF], these are absurd statements: he lied and he lied to remain a police officer. He lied about his medical condition which could put others at risk. If that doesn’t strike at the very heart of what a police officer is supposed to do: be honest, be sincere and help others, then I don’t know what would. It makes no difference that he didn’t lie under oath. How are we to trust that when he does take the stand, with someone else’s liberty at stake – that what comes out of his mouth will be the truth and not some self-serving statement?
Justice Palmer concludes:
In sum, the town had no choice but to terminate Loschiavo’s employment as a police officer because his intentional and serious dishonesty has grievously compromised his credibility and integrity, and he has been rendered unfit to serve as a sworn officer.
I think the same can be said of black Americans’ view of police departments as a whole.
[This is my latest at the CT Law Tribune.]