As we all watch what French police are doing in and around Paris, perhaps it is appropriate to talk about our own.
The police in this country mostly do a good job of, well, policing. And beyond that, they often directly save lives. You can Google “policeman saves life” and come up with all kinds of stories like, “Prince George’s County Police Officer Saves Life of 14-Year-Old Boy” or “Officer saves baby’s life in Bridgeport” or “Dramatic moment policeman saves man’s life by dragging him from burning vehicle.”
There’s that side of the police, the good side, the amazing side, the side that keeps order and rescues people from danger. And then there’s this side:
Using the funerals of murdered New York City police officers—who were killed by a deranged man who had first shot his girlfriend in Baltimore earlier in the day—as a forum to demonstrate disapproval—patently unwarranted disapproval, by the way—of the mayor of New York is not exactly exemplary behavior. The head of the police unions, lacking any class whatsoever, falsely and angrily claimed the mayor had blood on his hands for the murder of those two cops. That sort of police behavior is far short of “Dramatic moment policeman saves man’s life by dragging him from burning vehicle.”
But as graceless as that behavior was, and as embarrassingly self-serving as the ongoing work slowdown orchestrated by New York cops is (the police department is in a contract dispute with the city), it doesn’t compare to what New York police did to Eric Garner last summer on the streets of Staten Island.
One of the officers involved in the arrest, you may remember, put an ultimately deadly chokehold on Garner, who was about to be arrested on suspicion of selling single cigarettes from packages that lacked adequate tax stamps. Mayor Bill de Blasio, after that incident, made some remarks that accurately noted the fear that many members of the African-American community have of the police, particularly as cops interact with black males.
The mayor was careful not to condemn the police en masse, but New York cops, aided and abetted by right-wing media, took offense at de Blasio’s remarks, and the funeral protests and work slowdown ensued. The result of all this may be that the public, and public officials, will become reluctant to criticize, in any way, the actions of the police anywhere.
We all know that police work, when done properly, is what helps preserve our civilization, else the bad guys, including terrorists, would make it impossible to pursue happiness in any meaningful way. But it is precisely because we need the police to preserve civilization that they should be held to high standards of conduct. If they aren’t, if their actions are beyond even reasonable criticism, then we have to question the quality of the civilization we have and seek to preserve.
Not long ago I wrote a piece (“Do Black Lives Matter?“) that focused on the killing, by Cleveland police, of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. The sixth-grader was playing in a park near his home, playing with what I described as a “toyish gun.” I wrote:
A concerned citizen at the park had called 911 and told the dispatcher that someone,“probably a juvenile,” was pointing a gun at people, even though the caller thought the gun might be “fake.” In response to the dispatcher’s inquiry, the caller identified the gun-wielding kid as black. By the time word got out to the cops on patrol, the part about the juvenile and the part about the potentially fake gun got lost. Responding officers were essentially looking for a black male with a dangerous weapon who was threatening people with it, and since young black males are 21 times more likely to get shot by the police than young white males, no one should be surprised that Tamir Rice is now dead.
We now know that the police not only shot the kid in less than two seconds upon carelessly pulling up within a few feet of where he was, but that they lied about what happened prior to the shooting, when they were unaware a surveillance video of the encounter existed.
We also now know that the rookie Cleveland officer who shot Tamir Rice had resigned from his previous job on a small town force just before he was about to be dismissed from the department. His superiors at his previous job regarded him as emotionally unable to do his duties, particularly involving handling his firearm. Cleveland officials hired him without looking into his background.
We also now know that the more experienced officer driving the police car that day in Cleveland, who wildly drove the car on the grass right up to the gazebo where Tamir was initially sitting, was involved in an incident in which the city of Cleveland paid out $100,000 to settle a claim related to excessive force.
We also now know that a Justice Department investigation, done before the Tamir Rice shooting, found that “unreasonable force was part of a pattern of behavior that was in some cases endorsed by supervisors” in the Cleveland police department. The review also found that the department was “sometimes chaotic and dangerous … and frequently deprives individuals of their constitutional rights.”
Finally, we also now know what happened in the minutes following the killing of Tamir Rice. The Northeast Ohio Media Group obtained additional video of the aftermath, after engaging in “protracted talks with city officials, who initially refused to release it.” Cleveland.com reported:
The video confirmed earlier claims made by Tamir’s mother, Samaria Rice, and her legal team at a Dec. 8 press conference that an officer cuffed her daughter as she ran to check on her brother and that officers waited several minutes before administering first aid.
The girl, who was at the park with Tamir, ran to her brother’s side when she heard two gunshots fired by first-year Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann.
As the girl neared her brother, Loehmann’s partner, Frank Garmback confronted her and forced her to the ground. Loehmann rushed over, and the two knelt beside her as she rolled on the ground. Eventually the officers handcuffed the girl and placed her in the back of the police cruiser, less than 10 feet from her dying brother.
Four minutes went by without anyone offering medical attention to the young boy. An FBI officer who happened on the scene was the first to do something for him. And the Cleveland police manhandled the boy’s teenage sister, who, naturally, wanted to run to his aid.
Do the police do mostly good things? Yes. But sometimes they don’t. They didn’t in New York City when they confronted Eric Garner. And they didn’t in Cleveland when they encountered 12-year-old Tamir Rice. And we owe it to our civilization to reserve the right to say so, no matter how many protests the police organize at funerals or how many parking tickets they refuse to write or how disreputable their union leaders act.
Here is the extended video of the Tamir Rice incident: