You know, there are power-mad assholes in every profession. There are power-mad assholes working at Starbucks, and at Barnes & Noble. But if you encounter a power-mad asshole at Starbucks, you might get yelled at for ordering an unnecessarily prolix drink. If you encounter a power-mad asshole at Barnes & Noble, some hipster dick in black horn-rims might roll his eyes at you when you buy "Twilight" for your niece's birthday. If, on the other hand, you encounter a power-mad asshole who is a cop, it is entirely possible that you will wind up with a ticket if you are lucky, and handcuffed, tazed, or even dead if you are not.
Hence the bad cops — like the bad judges, and bad teachers, and bad members of all the other professions that hold substantial (and mostly unchecked) power over us at various moments of our life — stick out in our mind more. It's tempting, as a result, to conclude that there is a much greater percentage of power-mad assholes among the cops than there is in the general population. I think there is probably a somewhat higher percentage — the job holds attractions that draw power-mad assholes, and the law enforcement culture hardly discourages acting like one — but I don't think that the delta is as dramatic as our gut might tell us after an unpleasant encounter.
There's no way to count reliably, so ultimately it's an angels-on-pins type question. But though we can't count the bad cops and make four-colored graphs, there is something we can do — stand up, and speak out, about power-mad assholes with badges. That is, in fact, our obligation as free people. Radley Balko at The Agitator links to a compelling story with a quintessential example of one citizen standing up and refusing to tolerate a cop's power-mad delusions of entitlement.
Josh Wexler says he saw New Orleans Police Department Officer William Torres run a stop sign and hit a pedestrian. According to Wexler, Torres reacted in classic RESPECT MAH AUTHORITAH fashion:
When the pedestrian raised his hands as if to say, “What are you doing?” the officer rushed out of his vehicle and “angrily” grabbed the startled man, Wexler said.
The officer in question, William Torres, reportedly forced the pedestrian to place his hands on the hood of his squad car and reached for his handcuffs as if to arrest him.
The charge would be "using skull, back, and legs to strike hood of patrol car while policeman is in the course of his lawful duties."
Now, the New Orleans Police Department is notorious. It's notorious in a way that makes LAPD's Rampart Division look like a cocktail party at the ACLU. But Wexler stood up. And immediately — and predictably — Officer William Torres, entitled power-mad asshole, was enraged:
He got out of his vehicle and told the officer he saw him run the stop sign and hit the pedestrian. Wexler told Torres he had no right to arrest the man.
At this point, Torres reportedly allowed the pedestrian to go free, directed his attention to Wexler and asked, “Do you want a ticket?”
“A ticket for what?” Wexler said. “I didn’t do anything.”
“It’s a simple question. Yes or no. Do you want a ticket?” Torres reportedly responded.
Wexler said he told the officer he had nothing more to say and walked back to his car where he wrote down Torres’ name and badge number.
Torres followed him.
“You want to write down my name? I'll show you I can write too. Give me your license, insurance, and registration. I know who to harass,” Torres reportedly said.
Wexler provided Torres with the information but refused to answer further questions.
“If you don’t answer my questions, you are going to jail,” Torres reportedly threatened.
Eventually, Torres wrote Wexler a ticket for failure to wear a seat belt and left the scene.
Let's be clear: Wexler is fortunate. It required a significant amount of luck to emerge from that encounter without being handcuffed, or tased, or even shot for "resisting arrest."
Wexler filed a complaint. It's highly unlikely that anything will ever come of it. The people who police the police — whether they are cops themselves, or "independent review boards" — tend to discount citizen testimony unless it is elaborately corroborated. In this they are speaking the party line:
“Police officers are citizens of the United States and just like everybody else they have due process rights,” Gallagher said. “If there is no evidence against an officer, should he be disciplined anyway? There’s no question that it has become a standard defense attorney tactic to have their clients make a complaint against an officer. It’s part of an accepted strategy now.”
See, some cops and their defenders — and the more milquetoast of their watchdogs — think that one citizen's word is not evidence if it is levied against a cop. Of course, our judicial system routinely asks judges and juries to accept the word of a single cop over the word of a single citizen, and judges and juries routinely do so without hesitation. The notion that a single civilian's story of law enforcement misconduct inherently weighs less than a cop's denial is part and parcel of the system that condones, and even encourages, some cops to be power-mad assholes, and the system that encourages an attitude of entitlement and superiority among cops like William Torres.
This culture, when it changes, changes slowly. What will it take? It will take more of us being like Josh Wexler, and speaking up, and taking the attendant risks. Let's not pretend for a moment that's not dangerous. It will take more people using new technologies to monitor police misconduct. It will take more people documenting police misconduct, whether in general or in particular geographical or subject-matter areas. It will take more people willing to reflect on the cultural message that police officers, by their nature, must be telling the truth, and that people accused of crimes, by their nature, must be lying. What have you done? Step up.
Edited to add: Josh Wexler comments below, reporting the predictable result of the complaint.
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