Policing the Police

 

speedy trial PAFerguson, Eric Garner, riots, murder charges against police in New Mexico, videos flooding the internet of police beating people…

It’s been in the news so frequently, it’s becoming alarming. Police Brutality.

It’s undeniably frustrating to see these stories of abuse of authority piling up. This isn’t about any particular case. This is a systematic problem.

My blood boils when I read these stories in the news. Not just because of the obvious problem of a civil rights violation, or even my genuine disgust seeing violence perpetrated on any person in general, but a deeper problem: A complete disregard for a sacred oath, resulting in an unpardonable violation of the public trust.

If the average citizen feels they cannot trust those who have voluntarily agreed to uphold the law for all, then who can they trust?

As a former prosecutor, I was justifiably held to a higher standard than one might apply to the average citizen. The public had put their trust in me to act in the name of justice. The public has a right to expect, nay, demand, public officials be accountable for their actions and set a higher standard.

This is true of all public officials, but more than any other, it applies to the police. Why? Because as much as any particular politician or elected official pisses you off, or acts in ways you disapprove of, they cannot legally shoot you.  A politician can’t cuff you, knock you to the ground and choke you to death on a public street, with cameras recording it, no less, and expect to have any chance to get away with it.

Officer of the Court

That is the legal designation of all attorneys, prosecution or defense. Defense attorneys are held to the same standards of conduct as their elected counterparts. The difference is a defense attorney is beholden only to their client. It is their sworn duty to defend that client to the very best of their ability, but they were not elected, nor are they retained (for the most by part) by elected officials or those charged with the public trust, the obvious exception being the role of a public defender. Those same standards of conduct become imperative if the system is truly functioning as it should.

Elected?

If one views local government realistically, we see that it would be impossible to hold public elections for every single police officer, building inspector, etc. This is the responsibility of those we elect, particularly the Mayor of a city and the council members, etc. They are there to represent US. We, the people, have hired them to do the job.

It disturbs me greatly to see police officers turning their backs on a Mayor who is willing to admit that the buck stops here, and he is personally concerned that the public trust he was elected to represent, is not being served.

Even more disturbing to me is the revelation that our elected officials are using police like tax collectors, forcing them to meet quotas like used car salesmen and undeniably adding unnecessary stress and anxiety to an already stressful job. It’s no wonder police become edgy.

Frankly, I believe this is an issue that the police union needs to address. It is an unfair practice to citizens and police officers alike. It forces officers to act like robots instead of human beings. In my career on both sides of the courtroom, I have dealt with many officers and found the vast majority of them to be dedicated and professional, but I’ve also encountered some who need to take a few anger management classes.

One of Us

Forgive my sense of humor, but, farts are funny. Anyone will tell you, hearing someone rip one in church, is funny. Unless it’s you. Or maybe, your husband or kid or elderly parent did it. Suddenly, you’re drowning in embarrassment. You didn’t do it, but your brother did. And that’s just a fart.

Imagine being a cop and your partner, a person who has had your back in life or death situations, is kicking the shit out of a suspect. Maybe you step in and get them to back off, but now what?

Would you testify against your brother or sister?

What if your brother had been going through a rough time in his marriage or maybe has a sick kid or just has so much to deal with… you get the point. Cops are people, too, and they have a bond amongst their own that is absolutely natural and even necessary. I’m suggesting that any meaningful change has to come from within. Police have to stand up for themselves and say, “We are not here to make up for the budget shortfall. We are here for a higher purpose.”

Who among us has not, at some point, been so stressed we very well might be able to shoot someone over a parking space? Now imagine having a gun and a badge that allows you to make some judgment calls in this arena.

Frankly, I’m impressed that more police aren’t over the edge. It is a testimony to something we all need to remember: They are expected to do a job most of us don’t want and they actually, for the most part, do a pretty good job of it.

Why do I say all this? Because, if you do get arrested, there are some things you absolutely need to keep in mind.

#1. “They didn’t read me my rights.”

The fact you are aware of your rights enough to know they are supposed to read them to you is pretty much an admission you already know your rights. Sad but true.

However…

You still have those rights. You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to an attorney. You have the right to refuse to answer any questions without your attorney present- no matter what they tell you. Here’s the problem: Unless you actually have an attorney, you fall into a kind of grey area, legally speaking. A public defender is not really, ‘your attorney’. They are there to ensure you get some representation in court, but you can’t call them from a holding cell and expect them to do anything in a timely fashion. They are pretty over-worked, to put it mildly.

 

#2 No one likes being told how to do their job.

Telling a cop you know your rights in a belligerent manner is not a promising start. Treat them with some respect. You’d be surprised how much it helps. I have one client in particular who has had several run ins with law. He actually retains me because he’s told police, politely, that I am his attorney and it helped. In fact, it actually kept them from taking him to jail once over an address discrepancy between his ID and what he stated his current address to be. Although I’d like to think I’m respected within the law enforcement community, I also know that my client was respectful and cooperative. He did not tell the police about his rights, he exercised those rights with respect for the law.

In today’s society, it is more likely than ever that you or someone you know will get arrested. DUI has become very common and impacts everyone, rich or poor, old and young. If you want to see a true cross section of America, attend a DUI class. Marijuana is commonly used and despite it being legal in several states, it’s still illegal in Pennsylvania. Even those who attend protest marches run an increased risk of arrest. Many times the police are ‘just doing their job’, yet too often, a combination of behavior from the protestors and the stressful nature of police work collide with tragic results, even when the initial ‘transgression’ isn’t all that serious to begin with.

We cannot expect police to be superhuman machines, nor can police expect every citizen to just obey in every situation. Everyone needs to take a step back, take a deep breath, and think about the humanity of all this.

One of the most difficult things to balance within myself, as a defense attorney, is my respect for the law versus my desire for justice. They are, tragically, not always one and the same. It is the same for police officers. Our politicians need to stop treating them like slot machines and instead support them in being role models and people we as a society can trust, and look up to.

 

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