Sunday, November 20, 2011

It's Time For A National Conversation On Law Enforcement

It's almost a daily exercise, watching video of law enforcement conduct that raises eyebrows. The responses are always the same: 1) The video doesn't tell the entire story, 2) We don't understand the "adrenaline" that causes police officers to beat the living crap out of suspects after they are securely in custody, and 3) So what, the guy's a criminal anyway.

We as criminal defense lawyers, civil libertarians, and yes, even some prosecutors and judges, watch these videos and know that there is a large segment of the country that finds this conduct just "part of the job."

And then something like this pops up:

College students, sitting in a line, in custody, being pepper sprayed in an image that reminds those of us who have seen them, of the videos of mass executions, like this one:

And so Officer Pike has been placed on leave, he'll probably be fired, and I hope arrested for aggravated assault. (Cue the giggles of the defense bar).

A few years ago I was sitting with a law-and-order type who had grown tired of the increase in minimum mandatory sentences, the lack of discretion of judges to do what they felt was right, and he made a comment that finds it's way in to this discussion:

"Why did the government believe after September 11, that the thing to do was to give all the power to prosecutors and cops?"

That's what we did, and we did it because all we wanted was to be safe.

Today, politicians confidently state that the number one priority of government is to "keep us safe. Is it? Is that what the majority of Americans want from their government more than anything? I ask because since Barack Obama has been President of the United States, we haven't had a terrorist attack and it looks like he's going to be fighting for his job next year.

Alexis Madrigal, in one of the best articles on the pepper spraying by Officer Pike that lays out how we got here, he writes:

9/11 put the final nail in the coffin of the previous protest-control regime. By the time of the Free Trade of the Americas anti-globalization protests in Miami broke out eight years ago this week, an entirely new model of taking on protests had emerged. People called it the Miami model. It was heavily militarized and very forceful. The police had armored personnel carriers.

As for what happened to the students of UC Davis: Authorities have long claimed that they were merely battling the "black bloc" of violent anarchists. But when you look at all these videos, the bogeyman isn't there.

Instead, it's a dozen scared kids and a police officer named John Pike spraying them in the face from three feet away. And while it's his finger pulling the trigger, the police system is what put him in the position to be standing in front of those students. I am sure that he is a man like me, and he didn't become a cop to shoot history majors with pepper spray. But the current policing paradigm requires that students get shot in the eyes with a chemical weapon if they resist, however peaceably. Someone has to do it.

Where are we going here? Where are the leaders in the country, on both sides of the political sphere, who believe that all this must stop, and stop now?

Law enforcement can make or break some political candidate's campaigns. Anyone in politics knows that.

But it's time to put aside the desire to gain and remain in public office at the expense of ignoring what is happening on the streets of this country, and to our kids.

It's time to have a real conversation about this. It's time for the media, government, civic and business leaders, and law enforcement, to sit down and talk about this.

Things need to change.


Non-anonymous comments welcome.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/ rules Post to Twitter