Ferguson, the Police State, and the Warrior Cop

“And not the other color so police think they have the authority to kill a minority”

–N.W.A.

America. Land of the free? Free to the power of the people in uniform.

–The Kottonmouth Kings

It’s a rare day here that I take a moment to write about criminal defense matters, but when there’s police-induced riots going on I feel a need to step back and make a point or two about how we’ve gone horribly wrong as a country when it comes to law enforcement.

A couple of months ago I read “Rise of the Warrior Cop” by Radley Balko, a journalist who’s been covering police brutality and issues with law enforcement for some time. The book details the formation of S.W.A.T. teams across the nation and how the increased militarization of police officers makes what should be a job of looking out for communities and ensuring the law is upheld into a job where the neighborhood is an “urban battlefield” and “the enemy” is always out there waiting to strike at a moment’s notice. Add in the fact that more and more law enforcement officers are getting armed with weaponry that would make a third world dictator jealous and you’ve got the makings of a very dangerous mentality for people that should be serving and protecting citizens–not looking for ways to “hunt the enemy.”

Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice (which is an excellent blawg I visit daily) best describes something that I think is at the heart of how Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown started–the First Rule of Policing:

The first rule of policing, as I’ve explained many times, is get home for dinner. What? Did you think it would be something heroic and inspirational? Well, it is, just not to you. Foremost in a police officer’s mind as he straps on his gun is to make it through his shift unharmed. Be reasonable. It’s a job, not something to die for….Not even a pension and gold shield will make up for leaving your children parentless. Get home for dinner is a very good rule.

Numerous people in the media have stated “we don’t know all the facts” and that “we shouldn’t rush to judgment” until the story finishes. The problem is that the story’s already finished at this point, and we have a good idea of what the events leading to the current Ferguson situation are. More than likely, the officer that shot Michael Brown felt something Brown said or did threatened his safety. Michael Brown got shot. Michael Brown died because an officer needed to follow the First Rule of Policing, and Brown’s death was the only way to make sure this officer got home for dinner.

The big problem here is the warrior mentality, and the lack of a dialogue on the part of the police. In the days following Michael Brown’s death, the people in Ferguson began demanding answers as to why this young man ready to start college was gunned down. The police had an opportunity to do all the “necessary” steps in this situation: issue a statement, give some sympathy for Mike Brown, ask for patience, start an independent investigation. It’s all old hat for departments that have experienced similar situations, and it’s expected by now whenever there’s a tragedy involving a community shooting. Those of us who work in the defense bar are also jaded enough to know usually the officers held responsible will be suspended with or without pay for a certain period of time, then return to their beats or at the very least a desk job. Law enforcement takes care of its own, while maintaining a strong image of community concern.

Ferguson didn’t get that. The cops circled the wagons and issued no further statements beyond the initial narrative of “Michael Brown reached for an officer’s gun during a struggle and was subsequently shot.” The coroners are refusing to issue an autopsy. There was no other official statement. Not even a whiff of an investigation or the potential of one. This lack of familiarity caused a national stir, and the dragnet got even tighter. When the media came calling, they got the narrative from community members who claimed to be eyewitnesses. Then came the tanks and S.W.A.T. members, who fired into protests and allegedly demanded any and all photos or recordings be handed over.

The most damning case came when the media were escorted from Ferguson and the pictures came in of reporters being hit with tear gas. Then airspace over Ferguson became a “no-fly zone” to protect law enforcement interests and safety. Now those who could have given the officers involved their loudest voice are silenced, and they have no choice but to take the word of disgruntled, angry protesters and air them. The First Rule of Policing and the Warrior Cop is getting a very black eye in Ferguson, and all because of the actions of a few who chose tactical missteps over openness and transparency.

There was a time when police work involved common sense, an understanding of the community, and a willingness to interact with those who weren’t wearing a badge. With the advent of the Warrior Cop, we have created a paramilitary force that demands complete obedience, and has the unquestioned authority to take your life if you don’t submit to the Law’s every whim.

When I started to write this, I had yet to see the Missouri Governor’s relief of St. Louis County law enforcement in Ferguson and their replacement by Missouri State Highway Patrol. The results were shocking to some, but for those of us in the legal profession we saw the difference. The head of the MSHP force in Ferguson began walking with protesters. He reminded everyone that a tragedy sparked this entire debacle–and that tragedy was the loss of a young man’s life. Police began mingling with protesters and community leaders. The protests and marches were watched, but this time in a manner that allowed people to demonstrate peaceably without assault rifles and armored tanks. In short, POLICING happened.

It’s amazing what you can do when you start to interact with the community and enforce the law instead of enforcing a police state. This should have been the response at the start, and it should be the response from every police department when an abuse of power occurs in the police ranks.

One more thing: for those people who want to make this a race issue–yes, there’s a racial component to it. Yes, there’s stats that show the disparity of treatment between white people and people of color. We who work the defense bar are all too familiar with these quandaries. The problem with using anecdotal evidence to support the race issue as the determining factor here is that we run the risk of falling into a post hoc fallacy for our arguments. Furthermore, we place ourselves from losing sight of just how out of control cops are in every area.

Not to far from the Compound, in the Fort Sanders region, a police officer was caught on camera choking a college student at a party unconscious while two of his brethren watched. This incident made international headlines, and the officer who dared lay his hands on a college student was immediately terminated, with the matter going to a prosecutor for potential investigation. The other two officers were investigated for potential wrongdoing as well, but were eventually cleared despite photographs clearly showing they could see everything their less stable brother in blue was doing and they did nothing to stop it. I’m tempted to tell you that’s a good piece of evidence beyond just “police like to shoot black kids.”

In all fairness–there’s a couple of points I keep thinking about when it comes to the Fort Sanders incident in Knoxville.

What if the Sheriff wasn’t up for reelection?
What if someone hadn’t photographed the incident?

And most disturbingly:

What if the student was black?

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