Are cops above the law?

(Image: Ramsey Orta / Time Magazine)
Cops pin Eric Garner as he struggles to breathe. (Image: Ramsey Orta / Time Magazine)

It was sad but not surprising when the Ferguson, Mo., grand jury failed to indict police officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown. There were conflicting witness accounts and conflicting forensic reports, and one wonders if that wasn’t precisely why an indictment and jury trial were in order. Surely a trial was needed to hear all the evidence and arguments on both sides to determine the truth. Except, of course, the defendant was a police officer, and cops, it seems, always get the benefit of the doubt.

Then there was the tragic, senseless death of Eric Garner in New York City. A video of the incident made the whole world witness to what happened. Whether you called it a choke hold or a takedown, an officer put his arm around Garner’s neck to subdue him and force him to the ground. Garner gasped repeatedly (11 times) that he couldn’t breathe while several more officers piled on top of him. Why maintain the choke/takedown hold once he was down? Why have others keep their weight on him when he repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe? Intentionally or not, they killed Garner as surely as if they’d shot him. Yet even with the entire incident caught on video, the grand jury still didn’t indict.

In these and countless other cases, cops seem to be above the law, untouchable. They aren’t accountable to anyone but their superiors — fellow law officers. Time and time again we see cases where cops beat, taser, or shoot defenseless civilians and are never charged with a crime. And the abuses continue. Apparently the threat of suspension, temporary loss of pay, or maybe loss of employment are not adequate deterrents.

We must change the “murder isn’t murder if a cop does it” system of justice because it isn’t justice. It’s assault, manslaughter, or murder legalized. The blue wall of silence is great for protecting cops, but it’s doing nothing to discourage police brutality and use of excessive force.

It’s been said that cops need to be free to react in an instant to a threatening situation without having to worry about being prosecuted later for their actions. Of course they do. But there has to be some kind of accountability for situations like Eric Garner’s, where officers initiate a confrontation with someone who’s doing nothing wrong and that person ends up dead at the hands of those officers. Another egregious example: Eight cops pump 45 bullets into a mentally ill homeless man armed only with a penknife.

And what about the still unresolved case of the innocent, unarmed man killed in Oklahoma City by cops who pinned, pepper-sprayed, and suffocated him? Or the cop in Cleveland who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice less than 2 seconds after confronting him for carrying a toy gun? Or the countless other cases like these? Is it excessive force when an unarmed suspect ends up dead? Obviously it is. Will the cops involved be prosecuted for assault, manslaughter, or murder? Probably not.

Certainly not all cops are thugs or mentally unstable or John Wayne wannabes running amok and abusing their authority. Most are responsible men and women doing a tough, thankless, sometimes dangerous job trying to keep us all safe. But there are bad apples in every department, in every city, and their excesses, carelessness, and disregard are killing people.

Putting cops above the law they are sworn to enforce is a terrible idea. At the very least it undermines public confidence in the law. At worst, it lets criminals go free. The system needs to change.

33 comments

  1. I do not believe that the Police are above the law.They must be held accountable for their actions.Why a Grand Jury Trial was not convened on behalf of Michael Brown is unacceptable. There are to many conflicting eye witness accounts of how this police response occurred,or went down.There are reports of changed testimonies AFTER other accounts were made public.Can the truth really be known?
    Why why why was not the chock hold on Eric Garner let go or loosened after he repeatedly said he could not breath? Were there not enough police on the scene to keep the incident in check? There are plenty of other questions here that must surly warrant a Grand Jury investigation. Shame on the legal system!
    Oh,by the way,it is illegal to sell tobacco products to minors and if in fact Eric Garner was doing just that,he was breaking the law which at least warranted an investigation of some sort.

    1. Garner had in the past sold loose cigarettes and been arrested for it but by most accounts he was not selling them the day he died.

      I was willing to accept that there might be some reason why Darren Wilson was not indicted. But what happened to Eric Garner was plain to see. It’s a travesty that no one was indicted.

  2. When I was in college, I had a friend who was what we’d now call a Tea Bagger. However, he was unusual in that he had a great sense of humor and something of a conscience (something I’ve never seen since in a far Rightie). He had, at one time, been on the local police force. He quit in disgust when he learned that the police are always right and don’t have to obey any rules. That wasn’t the way he thought it should be.

    He told me once that all the police he knew where either crooked or sadisic — that’s why they were cops. Anyone who wanted to do good either left voluntarily or was chased out by the others who feared that they might “squeal”.

    Although his statement only applied to the local force, I’ve never seen any reason to think it doesn’t apply everywhere I’ve lived. And I’ve lived in a lot of places…

    1. Give a badge, a gun, authorization, and virtual immunity to the wrong person and a lot of bad things can happen. I don’t think all cops are like that. I don’t think most cops are like that. But they need to do a much better job of policing themselves because all the bad press they’ve gotten in recent years has made even this ol’ Pollyanna very wary.

  3. A brilliant incisive post PT pity that all responsible media (even include the murdock group) in the US don’t run it as their main editorial. I know all your devotees will agree.

    I suppose the major newspapers such as NY Times, Washington Post wouldn’t give this space in their letters columns, too long, but worth a try I do believe PT the more US thinking citizens read what you said the better.

        1. It’s a headset that I talk into, as well. Otherwise, I have to use speaker mode, and that is just unbearable, never mind impossible with da fid. Mobile phone connections tend to get on my last nerve, regardless. I’m a curmudgeon that way.

  4. A very thoughtful analysis. After reading and listening to many discussions of the Michael Brown case, I think the evidence strongly suggests the officer acted properly. However in all the other cases you mention, I can’t find much if any merit in arguments that the police were acting in a responsible manner.

    It is incomprehensible that a grand jury could not find evidence that a crime was likely in the Garner case when they had the video scene you republished. That decision was injustice at its worst. And killing that 12-year-old kid with a toy gun was despicable.

    We seem to be moving into a situation much like what happens when we let rogue military officers act independently of civilian control. Our elected representatives on city councils and county boards and in state legislatures are supposed to control police activities (My father served for many years on a Fire and Police Commission authorized by the city council. I know first hand that the commission took great pains to stay aware of any actions by the local cops and had several removed or forced out.)

    It is apparent that those elected to watch over things are surrendering their authority, or abusing it, in many parts of the U.S., and there is a crying need for them to regain control, or for the voters to replace them. The bad apples must go, and that should start with chiefs of police and sheriffs who condone or wink at brutality and other inappropriate treatment of suspects.

    1. Who’s policing the police? It varies with different forms of city government, but in every case there’s someone, at some level, who is elected to office and therefore can be voted out. Citizens both black and white must register and must vote. They must get involved; they have the power to change things. Marching in the streets may feel like doing something, but it isn’t, really. Voting is ultimately what matters. Organizing and voting is how you change things. March to the registrar’s office. March to the polls.

      In my opinion the Eric Garner and Tamir Rice videos are indisputable evidence of police misconduct. And the Garner video in particular is similar to what an officer’s body camera would capture. If the law ignores what it shows, what’s the point of requiring body cams on all officers? We must have a responsible, responsive legal system in place to back them up.

      Ultimately we the people police the police. Register. Vote. Participate.

        1. well don’t expect miracles from the masses, they won’t get out and vote in the numbers that you’ll need to get the changes you want so it looks like you’re stuck with a police state 😳

  5. I tried to stay out of this one– while i agree there are bad officers at every level– i cannot agree that an applicant successfully passes the hiring processes (which usually include a background investigation, polygraph, psych, written, oral, physical, and agility testing, and usually more than one round of interviews) with the intent to be corrupt or to target individuals for any unlawful purpose. Public service is just that; it definitely is not a career for anyone wanting to work days with holidays & weekends off or to get rich, or to work without periods of crazy stress. The training processes are no easier than getting hired…. Nowadays even the lowest levels require at least 480 documented hours of initial certified training, then varying amounts and types of specialized training and OJT. Weapons are covered extensively during an officer’s training. By far, the biggest lessons are that the sidearm is deadly force and it does not leave the holster without sufficient and justified reason. All lesser methods or options must be considered and/or attempted prior to the handgun or shotgun. There are officers who are great on paper, great in a training environment, but who never “get the flick” of how to endure the bad press, bad opinions, bad experiences, bad calls, bad hours, etc. consistently without being affected. Some of those leave voluntarily, but other stay on the job… becoming the bad cops of all sterotypes. With unions, no complaints, and no disciplinary action procedures, it can be nearly impossible to terminate employment of bad officers. We do need citizens to get involved; to participate in community policing groups, attend city council meetings, contact their Chiefs of Police, County Sheriffs, Highway Patrol Commanders with both good and bad comments. VOTE. That is helping.
    One method of training with weapons, original was called “Hogan’s Alley,” and involved the officer walking through a course of fire, usually set up to mimic a street or row of homes with multi-levels, lots of doors, windows, shadows, and such. At varying places through the course, targets are suddenly presented. The course is timed, and within only a few seconds, the officer must evaluate each target. If hostile- fire the specified number of rounds at the specified target zones, or if not a threat, hold his/her fire. Delay too long and a hostile “shoots” and the officer fails the round. Shoot a non-threat and there must be an excellent reason or it is also a fail. Passing with certain scores is mandatory. I would ask each of you to go to a local shooting range to try a civilian version if any of you think this is easy (remember, this is just training, not your own life on the line, no emotionally charged situations, no anti-police attitudes, no weather, no cold symptoms or allergies, etc) Oh, and today’s toy guns look EXACTLY like the real thing. Toys are required to have that bright orange plastic tip to ID it as fake… any guesses what is removed or painted over first?
    I am not a uniform officer– left that behind years ago, but i remain in public service. I try hard to stay objective when the media presents seemingly definite evidence of abuse by law enforcement; these tragedies make that nearly impossible even for me.
    Keep covering these tragedies, PT, and hopefully one or more of your readers will get involved in work to bring changes that will end the mistrust of the legal system and of law enforcement in general.

    1. I’m not setting out to cover all examples of police brutality. But this one is inexplicable to me. I want, I need a thorough explanation of why the grand jury didn’t indict after seeing the video. If the grand jury thought this was acceptable police behavior, and apparently they did, then I need them to explain why they think that. Because nothing — nothing — about this looks acceptable to me.

    2. Karen Walker..John Steidley here: I do believe you hit the nail squarely on the head,and the Pied Type as well. What can we do to get a Grand Jury to at least give this unacceptable behavior a through review?

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