Friday, January 21, 2011

We, Not They, Lost Two Great Cops

I hesitated to write about this, not wanting to engage the "yeah, shut up, you hate cops," ignorant crowd, but here goes.

Yesterday two Miami-Dade Police Officers were murdered in broad daylight. They went to arrest Johnny Simms on a homicide warrant. To the relief of every defense lawyer in Miami, he's now dead too. Simms was where they thought he may be, and came out of a room, shooting.

As I sat in an airport waiting to come home, I saw the national breaking news on my phone. I told the prosecutor I was traveling with, and we both reacted the same. Yes, a prosecutor and I traveled to a meeting yesterday to discuss changes in the criminal rules - changes which we were on opposite sides. We sat together on the way up, argued intently against each other at the meeting, and then had lunch and did the "same" seats thing on the way back. There's a point to that, some of you got it, for others I'll explain later.

The two officers killed for knocking on a door leave 4 kids. Officer Roger Castillo is a father of 3, and Amanda Haworth a single mother of a 13 year old. Both officers have been on the force for over 20 years, Ms. Haworth's father never wanted her to become a police officer due to his fear she would be killed.

Johnny Simms was a career criminal. He was typical of the "I'm not going to jail today," type that no law or bulletproof vest can prevent. In the days to come, Simms' record will be scrutinized, his 11 arrests, the reasons he was placed on probation, and some legislator will craft a new type of statute that will pretend to prevent this from happening.

The statute will be convoluted, be named after the officers, and will say that someone like Johnny Simms must be sentenced to something, reports must be filed, things must happen.

And a few years from now it will happen again.

There is no law, no sentencing scheme that can prevent a Johnny Simms from murdering police officers again. I trust in Simms' cases there were witness problems and therefore proof problems. No surprise that there were probably certain witnesses not wanting to walk in to a courtroom and testify against this killer.

But first is the tension. Our courthouse will be filled as usual with police officers. They will all have black strips on their badges, all mourning the death of a colleague. The tension will be around for a little while. It will be around in the courthouse, and in traffic stops. Hell, these two were just serving a warrant. They knew Simms was dangerous. Traffic stops, the other site of police murders, are more of a roulette game today then they've ever been. The violence is mind numbing.

Events like this rock not only the police community, but the criminal justice system as a whole, and that includes defense lawyers. Back to my day with the prosecutor.

Those who take a superficial view of the criminal justice system believe that the only way defense attorneys operate, is under the notion that all cops are bad. We spend our days questioning everything they do, and place questions and arguments before judges and juries that evidence their mistakes. In the system many prosecutors believe we hate cops, out of the system, it's the general public.

It's always comical when a prosecutor watches from afar while a police officer slaps the back of a defense lawyer, or comes down to the coffee shop to see a group of officers having coffee with some defense lawyers.

Yes, we spend our days questioning the work of police officers. Some officers will say we make them better at their jobs. We also represent them when they have an internal affairs issue, or worse, get arrested. There are police officers who ask defense lawyers for referrals to other types of lawyers, and there are defense lawyers who are married to officers.

I remember in 1997 when a beloved highway patrolman was killed by a drunk driver. The funeral looked like congress (before they agreed last week to "sit together.") Defense lawyers on one side, prosecutors on the other. I also remember the looks from prosecutors - as if to say "what are you doing here, this was our officer."

It was sad yesterday to see a defense lawyer comment on a local blog about the murders that "I know we criticize the cops, but....." It was as if to say "I know some of you can't understand that everyone does their jobs....."

It's like saying "I'm a Republican, but I'm still upset over the attempted murder of Democrat Gabrielle Giffords."

It's at the heart of the problem with society today - we are unable to understand, accept, and behave in a manner that teaches our children that while people may argue, and disagree, and fight, and battle in an arena, whether that is a courtroom or political chamber - there is another side of life. There are relationships that transcend our profession(s).

I think in small towns this notion of prosecutors, defense lawyers, and cops having personal relationships outside "the office" is more prevalent and accepted. In the big city, there's more of an "us against them 24/7" mentality. I know cops that hate "all" defense lawyers, defense lawyers that hate "all" prosecutors, and so on. I think it's ingrained in us at a young age here. I remember being a young public defender and being told not to be seen in the coffee shop socializing with prosecutors.

I mourn the loss of Officers Castillo and Haworth, regardless of the prosecutors and cops that may say I have no right to do so because I represent criminals and therefore somehow I'm part of the problem. I do not support crime, I don't support violence, and I don't feel better knowing two officers are dead. There are people out there though that can't understand that a criminal defense lawyer would feel this way. It's too bad no one can help them.

RIP Officers Castillo and Haworth.

Brian Tannebaum is a criminal defense lawyer in Miami, Florida practicing in state and federal court, and the author of The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer.Share/Save/Bookmarkokdork.com rules Post to Twitter