In 2003, Patrol Sergeant Russell Metcalf of the Harrisonburg, Virginia Police Department struck Griffin Strother in the face during a traffic stop in which Metcalf was attempting to arrest Strother's friend. Strother sued Metcalf alleging excessive force and violation of Strother's civil rights.
It was a routine case. Sergeant Metcalf was given a summary judgment because he was just doing his job when he hit Strother in the face. After all, Strother moved in Metcalf's direction. Strother should have thanked Metcalf for the kindness of a punch in the face, rather than a gunshot to the chest.
Flash forward nine years, in which we learn what Sergeant Metcalf does when he's off duty. He shoots 20 pound border collies for daring to cross his path. The collie, named Sadie, was by all accounts a small and gentle beast. Sergeant Metcalf, a fat and vicious son of a bitch, has been charged with cruelty to animals.
What's amazing is that Metcalf was charged at all. After all, he's a sworn officer of the law. If he'd shot Sadie while breaking into her owners' house, nothing would have come of it.
What's the point of bringing this up, and singling out Russell Metcalf, who after all only shot a dog rather than a human being? Why do we write so often about police officers who kill dogs that pose no apparent threat to them?
It's because America is in love with its police officers. In court, in the news, in entertainment, the policeman almost always gets the benefit of the doubt. Bad movies and television shows joke about incarcerated suspects who "slip on the soap" in the shower, or on the floor, five times in 22 minutes. Police and prosecutors joke about "testilying". Defense attorneys don't.
Rule 404 of the Federal Rules of Evidence prohibits evidence of prior bad acts, or bad character, to prove that a witness is a bad person who likely behaved as a bad character at the time of the crime accused. There are exceptions, like motive ("Russell Metcalf is one mean son of a bitch; he shoots border collies"), but the rule generally holds. The rule need not, however, apply to public opinion, and courts take jurors as they find them.
We write about cops who shoot innocent dogs because everyone loves dogs. It will be hard for Russell Metcalf, dog killer that he is, to testify with a straight face that Sadie the 20 pound border collie lunged at him and put him in fear of his safety. The public, meaning jurors, should be aware how often policemen shoot border collies, and golden retrievers, and other harmless creatures. The public, meaning jurors, should take that awareness into the deliberation room when asked to decide whether Defendant W really assaulted Officer X, or Officer Y really beat the shit out of Plaintiff Z in violation of Z's civil rights.
Because judges, who know better than jurors that the policeman is made of mortal clay, all too often don't.