The Reason Mike Brown Can’t Get Justice Has Nothing To Do With Cameras

 

After Darren Wilson was released from legal responsibility for his murder of Mike Brown, it seemed everyone wanted to believe things would have happened otherwise were the killing captured on video by cameras. “Put a camera on every cop, and we’ll have fewer Mike Browns,” they said.

But this fails to understand the fundamental nature of both police and of video imagery. We might not need much sophisticated analysis to see this, since the same week Obama announced his campaign to put cameras on 50,000 officers, the videotaped killing of Eric Garner failed to even secure an indictment. Continue reading

A Short Script on On-Officer Wearable Cameras and Civilian Complaints

The scene is an interrogation room. A small room with brick walls, painted in light green-grey. A two-way mirror is on one wall and a surveillance camera is mounted in the corner. 

In the center of the room is a table with a chair on either side. An empty chair is on the side of the table facing a closed door. In the other chair is John, a Black male in his early twenties, wearing a black t-shirt, jeans, and some dried blood around one bruised eye. 

An officer in uniform, named Dick, enters the room and sits at the table across from John.

John: Look, I’m not talking to you without my lawyer.

Dick: I understand.

John: No, I don’t think you understand. I want to talk to a white shirt and file a complaint for what you did to me.

Dick: Look, John, we got you for driving without insurance, which is going to cause enough problems for you. But I want to show you something else…

Dick pulls a small device from his duty belt. It looks like a smart phone, only larger and more ‘heavy duty.’ He presses a button and a video begins to play.

Dick: Watch this, right here… I tell you to put your hands behind your back.

The video plays. We hear Dick yelling, “Hands behind your back… behind your back motherfucker… Stop resisting… Stop resisting…” John replies, “I’m not resisting! What are you arresting me for? I have my rights! Tell me what you’re arresting me…” His voice trails off and we hear the sound of tussling bodies and heavy breathing. “Ow! Damn!” Dick stops the video.

John: See, you hit me for no reason. I want my lawyer.

Dick: I told you to put your hands behind your back and you put your arms to the side to avoid being cuffed-

John: I put my hands out so you wouldn’t accuse me of going for a weapon!

Dick: John, I was just attempting to place you in cuffs for my safety, and you resisted. So I can also charge you with resisting arrest.

John: Bullshit, I-

Dick: And when I grabbed your arm you cocked back and elbowed me. That’s assaulting an officer. A felony. You could spend months in jail, maybe more.

John: I didn’t hit you, you hit me! Look at my face! I want to file a complaint.

Dick: Look, John, these complaints never go anywhere and you know that. But they are a real pain in the ass.

John: Well, I’m gonna be a pain in your ass when I sue you.

Dick: John. John. Calm down. Look, you’re facing charges for driving without insurance, resisting arrest, assaulting an officer. You’re looking at some serious time.

John: I want my lawyer.

Dick: How about we make this easier on both of us. If you are willing to let this go, we can stop this all right here and I’ll send you home with a traffic ticket. If you want to go ahead and file that complaint, this video will be played for a jury and you’re going to be doing some hard time. What do you say?

Fade out.

Cameras on Cops and Junk Science in Rialto

Some police departments are turning to wearable cameras, allowing their officers to record interactions with citizens. At the Taser International headquarters in Scottsdale, Ariz., Joseph LeDuc, a police officer, checked a video made with such a camera. (Photo: Joshua Lott, The New York Times)

Those of us who don’t confront the potential wide diffusion of on-officer body-worn cameras with excitement and hopefulness have already grown accustomed to some pat responses from advocates. Certain to be among them is the citation of a study from Rialto, California, that has made national news.

As the New York Times reported:

The Rialto study began in February 2012 and will run until this July [2013]. The results from the first 12 months are striking. Even with only half of the 54 uniformed patrol officers wearing cameras at any given time, the department over all had an 88 percent decline in the number of complaints filed against officers, compared with the 12 months before the study, to 3 from 24.

Rialto’s police officers also used force nearly 60 percent less often — in 25 instances, compared with 61. When force was used, it was twice as likely to have been applied by the officers who weren’t wearing cameras during that shift, the study found.

After completion of the study, Britain’s The Guardian relayed the same statistics and reported “Rialto’s randomised controlled study has seized attention because it offers scientific – and encouraging – findings.” Civilian police monitoring groups, like Police The Police, touted the new technology with an internet meme that circulated widely on social media. Continue reading

Police Violence Is Not A Problem Because Of Its Invisibility

Officers wearing riot gear walk through a park in downtown St. Louis on Sunday. (Photo: Tom Gannam/AP)

 

For months, in response to the killing of Michael Brown, Ferguson and Saint Louis have been sites of ongoing rebellion, with frequent actions of solidarity throughout the United States. Last week, after a grand jury declined to indict Michael Brown’s murderer, Officer Darren Wilson, protests erupted across the country.

In response, today US President Obama proposed a national program to outfit 50,000 police officers with body-worn cameras. Many, including Michael Brown’s family, advocate in favor of wearable cameras for police. Rashad Robinson of ColorOfChange.org wrote today that, “If what happened between Mike Brown and Darren Wilson had been captured on video, we would not be here today—and Michael Brown might be alive.” This advocacy is predicated on the idea that police violence is a problem because it remains hidden. Continue reading

An acknowledgment

Were I to strip all historical and political qualities to which Thanksgiving necessarily requires attention, I might say that today is a day that begs reflections of gratitude. The story I want to tell is one that has required no new reflection, because it has lingered in my thoughts daily since it happened. Though it is often on my mind, I have not told this story often, only because I know my words cannot do justice to the exemplary acts I wish to relate.
Continue reading

Civilians Less Violent, Cops More Violent, All More Visible

Policing Ferguson. Photograph by Scott Olson/Getty.

Police are safer than ever, civilians are less violent than ever, and violent force and imprisonment is more often to be expected by civilians—all under the watchful eye of cameras.

 

In the United States, violent crime rates continue to drop. Murders fell by 4.4 percent from 2012 to 2013, and are now at the lowest in around 40 years. According to the F.B.I. crime report, the U.S. had an estimated 1.16 million violent crimes last year, the lowest since 1.09 million were recorded in 1978. Adjusting for population, there are 4.3 violent crimes per year, per 1000 population now, compared with 4.9 in 1978. Continue reading

US Policing and the State

In this blog, I synthesize multiple theories in order to produce an approach to policing sufficient to understanding police violence in contemporary US American society. While much of this approach sufficiently describes policing in neoliberal democracies generally, the unique history of the United States colors policing in specific ways.

Along the way, I will address Max Weber’s definition of the state, Mark Neocleous on the fabrication of social order, W.E.B. Dubois and Joel Olson on the color line, Martinot and Butler on sovereignty, and finally Walter Benjamin and Giorgio Agamben on states of exception.

My attempt with this blog is to communicate an approach to policing that operates in my research, but to do so for a more general audience. I understand that by appropriating the language from political theorists, sociologists and philosophers, and by attending to the origins of the ideas discussed here, the blog might be received as intimidating. I hope readers who are put off by this style of attribution will be so generous as to disregard some of the stylistic decisions I’ve made to be in both worlds, academic and public alike. These two worlds aren’t so separate. Many criticisms of the former result from a reactionary anti-intellectualism, and yet it is fair for some readers to approach citational writing as alien. Also, the suggestion that public communication not be intellectual in orientation is to presume too little of the many publics among whom this material will likely be relevant.

A Monopoly on Violence

Policing has been defined very broadly as the administration and enforcement of law with the latent authorization to use violent force in doing so. Continue reading

Troy Police Under Investigation for Pattern of Civil Rights Violations

A January 25, 2014, police riot in a bar in Troy, NY, was documented on video by numerous indoor security cameras, street-level surveillance cameras, and cell phones. They show Troy police enter the Kokopellis night club as it was closing. After an argument with a patron, Roshawon Donley, an officer pushed and then punched Donley. Other officers joined the first in then beating Donley with batons.

As most remaining patrons rushed for the exit, another group of officers began beating them with batons, many to the back and back of the head as they fled. At least a dozen patrons are seen in videos being struck with batons by police, some to the head. As such, these mostly white officers were randomly using deadly force recklessly and randomly against a crowd comprised almost exclusively of people of color.

Using surveillance footage to identify the man, police arrested Karif Burns weeks after the incident. The video shows him grabbing the baton of an officer who was beating him, seemingly trying to prevent the continuation of the deadly force against him used by an officer. For this, he was charged with attempted burglary.

But the January 25 police riot was the tip of the iceberg. A letter to the Department of Justice, signed by the pastors of the Troy African American Pastoral Alliance, the director of the Center for Law and Justice, and this author identified this as a pattern of brutality and civil rights violations.

A rundown of some of the documented and publicly known cases of police violence in Troy include:

  • In 2008, multiple Troy PD officers, including William Bowles and Jeffrey Hoover, repeated beat with fists, batons, and flashlights Jamel Dewitt and Marquese Devon Hill. The officers claimed Hill’s criminal record was reason enough to beat him so brutally, even though he was unarmed and not actively resisting.
  • In 2010, Troy PD officers were beating Shakim Miller while James Foley recorded the incident with his cell phone. Troy Officer Pollay attacked Foley, causing numerous serious injuries, including broken bones. Foley later sued the officer, winning a $90,000 settlement. Troy Police Officers Christopher Pollay, Charles Castle, Joseph McNall and George Anderson were all involved in this case. During the case, Troy Police Chief Tedesco acknowledged a pattern of misconduct and requested an investigation.
  • Also in 2010, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute student, Nicholas Nigro, was filming from his front porch a violent arrest arrest of Luis M. Lluberes by Troy PD officers Brandon Cipperly, Charles Castle, William Fitch and Justin Ashe. ”He was down on the ground and they were taking turns hitting him three times in the back of the head,” Nigro said. ”One of the officers also bare-fisted punched him in the face and people were yelling at them to stop.”
  • In 2011, John Larkins was thrown to the ground, tasered, and arrested. While cuffed inside a police cruiser, he was pepper sprayed. The officers involved include Justin Ashe, Derrick Comitale and Martin Furciniti. This was a result of a false arrest at a hospital on charges for which he was later acquitted. This use of force was ruled justifiable by internal investigators, and Troy Mayor Rosamilia pledged “vigorously defending against [the open complaint filed by Larkins].”
  • In 2012, Brian Houle was severely beaten at his home by Troy PD Officer Kyle Jones following an argument between the two on Facebook. The officer arrived at Houle’s house in uniform, on duty, and in a police cruiser. Despite receiving numerous injuries following the unauthorized entry of the officer onto Houle’s property, the internal investigation ruled this was an acceptable use of the officer’s authority and physical force.
  • In March 2013, Jordan Novak was thrown into a police cruiser by Troy PD Officer Isaac Bertos. Novak was charged with a felony for denting the police cruiser and other malicious charges.
  • In July 2013, Officer Bertos attacked Robert Washington, beating and using a Taser on him. Washington was maliciously prosecuted with a felony and other crimes for this, for which he was recently exonerated.
  • In August 2013, Troy PD officers punched and kicked Samuel Ratley and Malcolm Watson during a video-documented altercation. Watson claims the violence was initiated by the police, and the video shows escalating aggression from the officers.
  • In October 2013, Hudson Valley Community College student, Archie Davis, was accused of jaywalking and using offensive language, for which (yes, again) Officer Bertos tackled, punched in the ribs and eye and Tasered him. Davis is suing the department. Bertos joined the force in 2009, and has now been named in at least three excessive force lawsuits.
  • In December 2013, Lawrence Nesmith was beaten by Troy PD Officer Sean McMahon in a holding cell at the Troy Police Department. City officials have defended the actions of the officers involved despite community demand for further investigation and for public release of the surveillance footage of the incident.

This week, the US Department of Justice responded to the call for an investigation. Working in conjunction with the the FBI, Troy PD files on most or all of the above cases (and perhaps others) were collected.

During a February 2014 Public Safety Board meeting, Police Chief Tedesco claimed all use of force incidents are documented and investigated. If this indeed the case, the FBI and DOJ are likely to find in this paper trail a significant pattern of offensive and criminal use of force against residents of and visitors to Troy, NY, and particularly among people of color. Importantly, this paper trail will document a criminal degree of supervisory complicity in these civil rights violations, covering them up, impeding discipline, and ultimately condoning these and future abuses to the civil rights and bodies of residents of and visitors to Troy, and particularly among people of color.

While this is a positive step forward, what is the best assurance of lasting change is a community-level, autonomous and yet fully authorized independent investigation into this pattern of brutality, the Troy PD use of force policy and related investigatory processes, and into these individual cases.

Protected: American Policing and The State

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A Categorical Denial of Public Oversight of Police

Certifying Brutality

In the weeks since Roshawon Donley and others were brutally beaten by Troy Police officers, Troy city and policing officials have taken many opportunities to speak about the events. Routinely, they have described the officers’ actions on the scene as necessary, within department policy, and lawful. As shown in the video below, Police Commissioner Magnetto went so far as to say that were the same situation to happen again, he would wish for police to respond exactly as they did — by beating at least half a dozen patrons with baton strikes, including blows to the head.

A Department of Justice report from 2011 explains the current trends in use of force policies in US municipal and other law enforcement departments. “Most agencies do not allow baton use until the subject threatens the officer by assuming the boxer’s stance.” Policies informed by current research in use of force outcomes, criminal and civil case law classify baton strikes to the head and other areas of the body as deadly force. A model DOJ use of force policy states unequivocally that “deadly force is not limited to the use of firearms” and includes baton strikes to the “head, neck, sternum, spine, groin, or kidneys” and lists this use of force among ramming with a car and firearm use. The DOJ makes clear, “A subject who poses no imminent threat will not be struck with a baton or impact tool … During non-deadly force incidents, officers will use reasonable care to avoid striking suspects on the head, neck, sternum, spine, groin, or kidneys, as these strikes may constitute deadly force.”

It is rather clear that Federal standards for municipal and other policing differ widely from the activities officials in Troy wish to certify and advocate as standard practice. They echo a common sentiment among police. A US Department of Justice report found that about half of police agree, “Always following the rules is not compatible with getting the job done.”

Continue reading