Category Archives: Police Watch

Bullshit Laws, Fiscal Irresponsibility, and the Inevitability of Police Abuse

missing plate

Every day fleets of law enforcement officers, from the DEA on down to the local police department, head out onto the streets armed with guns and hair-trigger fears for their own safety.

If they were going to fight the good fight against violence and theft, we could be unreservedly grateful. All too often these armed ingenues, represented by unions, covered by workers comp, and unwilling to tolerate any degree of risk to their person, instead spend their time enforcing petty, bullshit laws that accomplish nothing more than mindless bureaucratic authoritarianism—and revenue for overspent budgets.

Samuel Dubose was missing a front license plate. Walter Scott had a broken brake light. Caroline Small was sitting in her parked car. Eric Garner was selling untaxed cigarettes. James Boyd was camping in the wrong place. David Garcia was feeling suicidal. Zachary Hammond was on a first date with a woman carrying ten grams of marijuana. Freddie Gray was …

Does anyone even know?

These are the “crimes” for which they died.

In July, protestors at the Netroots Nation conference in Phoenix interrupted Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley to heckle their talking-point platitudes and demand concrete proposals for addressing police abuse. O’Malley, whose tough-on-crime polices as mayor of Baltimore sent its police department into a downward spiral of violence and corruption, had little to offer. Earlier this week Scott Walker, the only candidate in the first GOP debate asked a question on the topic, came up with nothing more tangible than better training, more support, and “consequences.”

Not independent investigators to handle accusations of misconduct. Not better record keeping to identify problematic officers and departments. Not body cams or enhanced protection of the public’s right to record. Not abolishing mandatory minimum sentencing laws that make suspects desperate. Not decriminalizing nonviolent offenses. Not ending the disastrous “war” on drugs.

Some of the protestors, who have continued to interrupt Sanders’ appearances, focus on racism. An independently worthy cause, ending racism is nevertheless not enough to solve police abuse. Racism is a sufficient cause of such problem, but not a necessary one.

No. The problem is you.

You have to stop supporting all the petty laws that can ultimately be enforced only with violence. Sex-for-money between consenting adults. Sale by and to and ingestion of substances by peaceful adults. Jaywalking, loitering, broken tail lights and the myriad thousand other nonviolent offenses that exist for no greater purpose than that the upper castes may express their disapproval of those who achieve less than Stepford levels of respectability.

Every law, every rule, every regulation—from cigarette taxes to fines for broken brake lights to driving without a license to civil penalties for refusing to make a wedding cake—carries with it the implicit edict that you are willing to have officers in uniforms kill people to enforce it.

Bounkham "Bou Bou" Phonesavanh was sleeping when militarized police threw a flash grenade into his crib during a raid looking for someone who sold $50 worth of illegal drugs. No drugs were found, no arrests made; the suspect no longer lived there.

Bounkham “Bou Bou” Phonesavanh was sleeping when police threw a flash grenade into his crib during a raid looking for a suspect alleged to have sold $50 worth of illegal drugs. No drugs were found, no arrests made; the suspect no longer lived there.

That you are willing to throw flash grenades at babies to keep grownups from ingesting methamphetamine (even though you know once thusly tasked, cops will lie to get those warrants). That you are willing to put that cigarette-tax dodger in a chokehold. That you are willing to kill those Oregon bakers if they won’t pay the fine for not baking the cake, and try to lock their door when the sheriff comes to execute on that judgment. You will risk violence by sending thuggish swat teams into legal medical marijuana dispensaries to terrorize customers inside. You would rather that poor mother with the broken brake light or the expired plates pay her fine to your government than feed her children. You are willing to shoot a man in the head for only having a rear license plate on his vehicle.

You are willing to spend billions packing our prisons, eroding our civil liberties and constitutional rights, and imposing roadside anal probings as the acceptable costs of keeping peaceful people from ingesting the substances of which you disapprove.

To your countenance of such tactics for such ends, add the near irresistible temptation of unearned riches—in an era of profligate spending and mismanaged budgets—and violence is an all but inevitable outcome. Civil asset forfeiture creates perverse incentives that lead police departments to prioritize nonviolent drug crimes, while victims of violence wait weeks for assistance; where crime labs let murder evidence backlog for decades, while drug cases get processed within hours.

Yet the insidious evil of treating citizens like municipal ATM machines takes place on an even smaller level than civil asset forfeiture. An official shake-down system also exists in the form of excessive tickets for petty offenses, doled out to those who cannot afford to fight back (disproportionately poor and minority), and then ballooning and escalating into ever more unmanageable sums until arrest and jail time result.

There are no debtors prisons in the U.S.A. Unless the creditor is the government. Then you’re fucked.

The Justice Department’s scathing report on the Ferguson, Missouri police department documented the disturbing end-game of such practices: a situation where 25% of the city’s revenue came from fines imposed by an unsupervised police force prone to excessive use of force. Jack Hitt at Mother Jones has reported on another Missouri suburb where, in response to a legislative cap on revenue that could be generated via traffic stops, the city enacted a whole host of other petty, bullshit laws (against such menaces as basketball hoops in the front yard, overgrown hedges, disorderly window blinds, and pants worn to low) and increased its non-traffic related arrests by 495%.

For the affluent this may be nothing more than an annoying shadow tax system to prop up an overreaching government that spends so far outside its means it pays tax dollars to research how robot-provided Swedish massage affects rabbits’ recovery from exercise. For the poor, knowing their lives will be ruined by fines they cannot afford to pay, jail time, job loss, and mandatory minimums that destroy families, it is why they run.

It is also why they kill.

Because at its worst, this system of official shakedown invites the very threats that put officers on edge. Dionne Wilson, widow of a slain California officer, understands this only too well. Her husband Dan Niemi showed up to investigate a noise complaint and found himself facing Irving Ramirez, who had a history of drug incarcerations. Carrying both guns and drugs when confronted, and desperate not to go back to jail, Ramirez shot and killed Officer Niemi. Wilson used to wonder why Ramirez was ever let out of prison.

Now she wonders why he ever had to go in.

It is easy to blame the problem of police violence on racist cops with (the gender neutral equivalent of) small dicks and big Napoleon complexes. It is harder to take responsibility for the crap laws and fiscal irresponsibility that make bad cops inevitable.

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.

A Thought Experiment: Fraternity Initiation Gone Horribly Wrong


I would like to conduct a little thought experiment.

It seems that quite a few people have very strong opinions about the Freddie Gray case in Baltimore. Some of you see this as a race issue, others as a police issue (cops either almost always have halos or devil horns), and a few see this as the human tragedy it truly is. Some believe that there simply isn’t enough proof to bring charges against the six police officers. They are being railroaded and overcharged some say (I would like to point out that overcharging non-cops and railroading non-cops in the justice system is an everyday occurrence). I would like to remove these variables and see if we come up with a different conclusion if we change the actors.

Let’s say that instead of six cops putting Freddie Gray in a paddy wagon its six fraternity brothers (of any race you wish, but let’s say they are all of the same race…use your imagination) from the (fill in the blank) chapter doing an initiation. At this point in the story, our analogue for Freddie Gray is a pledge who wants to join this fraternity. Let’s call him Jim.

Are you with me so far?

Now that we know who the actors are let’s continue…

Several of the fraternity brothers find Jim and start the initiation process. They put Jim in hand cuffs and call the rest of the fraternity brothers who eventually pull up in a van. As they begin to put Jim in the van, he begins to panic.

“I can’t breathe, I need my inhaler!” Jim says.

The fraternity brothers ignore Jim’s concerns and proceed to put him in the back of the van.
Jim sits on a bench with both his hands and feet cuffed but not restrained in a seat belt. The van peels out down the road. Jim is bouncing around the van. Whatever else happened inside the van remains unclear. Did the fraternity brothers get a little too rough with him? What caused Jim’s neck injury? Was his injuries sustained just from bouncing around with his hands and feet bound?

We don’t know for sure.

The driver stops the van and checks in on Jim. Clearly, Jim appears to be hurt but the driver offers no medical attention, shrugs, and returns to the driver’s seat.

After driving a few more blocks, the van stops to pick up a second fraternity pledge. Jim, no longer really “into” being a pledge says at least twice that he needs to be taken to a hospital or at the very least, dropped off. Jim is having difficulty breathing. The driver again ignores Jim’s pleas and obvious medical needs.

What happens next remains controversial. Some news outlets say the other pledge witness Jim trying to injure himself! A day or two later, the person claiming to be the other pledge says that he was being misquoted and said that Jim did not try to injure himself. Even more news stories claimed that the original story was true and the second story was false.Dr. David Samadi writing an article for The New York Daily News writes that an injury of that type being self-inflicted is “highly unlikely.”

After driving around a bit more the van stops again. Jim is on the floor and unresponsive but the frat brothers again decide not to take him to a hospital or offer any kind of assistance. Still bound at his hands and feet and still not secured in a seat belt, the van makes its way to the frat house.
When the van finally stops at the frat house, the driver notices that Jim isn’t breathing. The frat brothers finally come to terms with just how dire the situation is and dial 911.

Jim is transported to the hospital via ambulance. About a week later, Jim dies of injuries to his spine.

In the autopsy report, the cause of death is ruled a homicide.

In the weeks that followed Jim’s death, there were all sorts of rumors about his character. He had been arrested several times – mostly drug offenses. Stories on social media also claimed that Jim had sustained the spine injuries in a car accident prior to the fraternity initiation and had a surgery to repair the damage (this story turned out to be false but many people still believe it to be true). Furthermore, the toxicology report revealed that Jim had heroin and marijuana in his system.

Now that these variables are a little different, is there anyone out there who is going to tell me that in such a scenario these six frat brothers would not receive at least some of the following charges?

-Manslaughter by vehicle (gross negligence on the part of the driver – 10 years)

-Manslaughter by vehicle (criminal negligence on the part of the driver – 3 years)

-False imprisonment (the remaining five frat brothers – 1 count each)

-Manslaughter (1 count for each frat brother)

Based on these findings by the DA, would you say these frat brothers are being over charged? Should they be charged at all? Jim was alive and well before the frat brothers picked him up. Now he is dead. Something happened while he was under the control of the frat brothers.

And what about Jim’s arrest record? (Note: arrests are not the same as convictions) What about the toxicology report showing heroin and marijuana in his system? Assuming this is true, does this somehow absolve the frat brothers of any wrong doing, at least partially? If so how?

Final question: is your conclusion to the above scenario similar to the real life Freddie Gray case? If not, why not?

As to other ancillary comments about the protests, riots, or other cases…post those elsewhere as they are not relevant to this discussion.

Quote of the Day: Baltimore 2015 Edition

what ifI’ve been thinking quite a bit about the situation in Baltimore and the very state of our culture. This Facebook status update I came across yesterday is very worthy of repeating here.

I really wish people would stop posting Freddie Gray’s criminal record, as if that makes him deserving of having his spine broken while in police custody, killing him. You can’t claim to be a supporter of constitutional rights, yet care nothing of Freddie Gray’s rights. This brother was no less deserving of his life than any white collar criminal. I don’t support rioting & looting, but I also won’t support those who think his life was worth less than the next person, or that he got what he deserved. He was the victim in this case, and his record is irrelevant… – Talitha McEachin

Agreed. Unless Freddie Gray presented a presented a threat to the lives of the police officers while he was in custody*, the police had no right to use the force they used that ultimately ended his life. Whether he was arrested one time or a thousand has nothing to do with how Gray was treated.

*Of course at this point, we don’t really know what happened while Gray was in custody. This is yet another argument for the notion that each and every moment the police are interacting with a suspect that these interactions should be recorded and made available (eventually) to the public. There’s simply no excuse for this not to be the policy of every police department in 2015.

Walter Scott Shooting Is Reminder of Why We Must Defend Our Right to Record

A police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina has been charged with murder in connection with the shooting death of an unarmed motorist named Walter Scott.

Patrolman Michael Slager initially claimed that following a traffic stop for a broken headlight, motorist Walter Scott tried to take Slager’s taser. The two struggled, Slager feared for his life, and shot Scott as the two fought over the taser.

Then an absolutely devastating video emerged. The video shows Slager shoot the unarmed Scott eight times in the back as Scott tries to fee. After the shooting, Slager handcuffs the dying man, leaves him lying facedown without medical attention, and retrieves an object to drop near the body.

After the video emerged, Slager, a five-year veteran with the force, was taken into custody, charged with murder and denied bond at his initial hearing. He was fired from his position with the force. The attorney who went on record with Slager’s story about the shooting occurring during a struggle over the taser is no longer representing him.


How do you think it would have played out without the video?

All over the country, our right to record is under constant assault from police who treat citizens recording them as law-breaking obstructionists. Walter Scott’s death is a stark and heartbreaking reminder of why we must vigorously defend the right to record.

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.

Most Police Abuse Committed by a Handful of Officers

cop punches woman

Jonathan Turley at Res Ipsa Loquitur has posted an interesting snippet about a study concluding that the majority of police abuse incidents are committed by a small group of officers:

… A relatively small number of officers are responsible for over half of police abuse claims. We have seen similar results in studies of malpractice cases of doctors. Yet, this small group of officers not only tarnish the reputations of all officers but cost massive amounts of money. …

Law professor Craig Futterman, who runs the University of Chicago’s Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project, has done some interesting work in this area. His study of the Chicago Police Department found the same officers fueling these costs. It suggests that a better job of self-policing could result in substantial savings for police departments and more importantly greater protection for citizens.

UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz has found similar results.

In the wake of the shooting of two police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, and the executions of two officers in New York City in December, it is unquestionably important to keep this in mind. I generally think most of us in the reform movement already know it.

The problem is that we lack confidence in police efforts to police their own. As Turley notes:

…Most cities still resist keeping records that would help identify such officers and track patterns. This would seem to offer obvious areas of reform for departments. We have certainly seen anecdotally that officers involved in controversies often seem to have checkered histories of prior lawsuits or serious complaints. The problem is the political will to implement the academic findings.

The lengths departments are willing to go to remain ignorant of the bad apples in their barrels are reflected in the costs passed on to taxpayers. Chicago paid a half a billion dollars over a ten year period. New York City paid that amount over a five year period. A single division in Los Angeles cost the city $125 million.

Yet Lou Reiter a former Los Angeles deputy police chief who trains police departments on “liability management,” says departments rarely ask themselves what they could have done differently to avoid those costs. Instead they blame the courts or the public for not understanding the difficulties inherent in the job.

Many do not keep records or make an effort to run the numbers to identify the “relative handful of officers” who account for half of all complaints:

While New York City pays the Police Department’s skyrocketing legal bills, the department makes almost no effort to learn from lawsuits brought against it and its officers. The department does not track which officers were named, what claims were alleged or what payouts were made in the thousands of suits brought every year.

What’s more, officers’ personnel files contain no record of the allegations and results of lawsuits filed against them. Neither the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau nor the Civilian Complaint Review Board investigates allegations made in lawsuits, and police officials review only the litigation files of the few dozen cases each year that result in payments of $250,000 or more.

The majority of police officers are innocent of abuse.

But when good men do nothing, evil triumphs.

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.
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