On Police Brutality, Part 2

Wonka Cops

I found this execrable meme on the Facebook wall of a physician.

A physician.

If this is an indicator of the depths of his compassion, may you never find yourself under his care.

How stupid, how uncompassionate, how hateful is this meme?  Let me paint you a picture: If stupidity were a skyscraper, this meme would be the Burj Khalifa times five.  If naïve privilege were a lizard, this meme would be Godzilla.  If an utter disregard for due process were a puddle, this meme would be the Noachian Flood.

I think you get my point.  This meme sucks.  Allow me to explain why.

You’ve probably seen a lot of news lately about folks who have died while in police custody as a result of police actions.  I think that qualifies as “being treated poorly by police”.  Contrary to this meme’s implication, many of these victims had broken no law prior to their encounter with an overly aggressive police officer.  Sure, some did break laws, but their infractions were typically minor.  In each of the cases labeled “police brutality” – excuse me, where the suspect was “treated poorly by police” – the police response was far in excess of what was called for.

Most people have heard about Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old Baltimore man who was arrested for possessing an illegal switchblade*.  Gray was loaded into a police van after an arrest that witnesses described as unnecessarily violent.  He may have been injured at this point, but at least he was still alive and breathing.  Less than an hour later, however, Gray was in a coma, having suffered severe injuries to his head, neck, and spine.  A week later, Gray was dead.

A follow-up investigation into Gray’s death revealed that his injuries were probably sustained during a “rough ride”.  A rough ride is when a prisoner is placed into a police vehicle without a seat belt, although his hands and possibly legs are bound.  The vehicle is then driven recklessly, with lots of violent starts, stops, and turns.  The prisoner is prey to his own inertia; his body is flung around like a rag doll, and in his handcuffed state he is powerless to prevent it.

Rough rides are not officially sanctioned by the Baltimore Police Department (or by any police department, one hopes), but it has been an unspoken part of police procedure for several years.  Gray is by no means the only person to be seriously injured in a rough ride, not even in Baltimore:

  • In 1980, John Wheatfall suffered a broken neck and became paralyzed in a police van.  He sued the department for $3 million, but was only awarded $20,000.
  • In 1997, Jeffrey Alston‘s neck was broken during a rough ride, paralyzing him.  Seven years later, a civil jury awarded Alston $39 million.  Alston settled with the city for $6 million, but unfortunately died in 2005 from complications related to his injuries.
  • Also in 2005, Dondi Johnson Sr suffered a broken neck in a police van.  Johnston died two weeks later from pneumonia associated with his injuries.  His family successfully sued the BPD for $7.4 million; the award was then reduced to $219,000.
  • In 2012, Christine Abbott was allegedly assaulted by Baltimore police officers responding to a noise complaint.  The officers arrested Abbott, whose clothing had been torn during the scuffle and who sustained minor injuries, and threw her in a police van for a rough ride.  Abbott described the experience as being “like a roller coaster”, although presumably not in a fun way.  Abbott was further injured during the ride and later sued the police department.

And sadly, there have been numerous other people harmed by excessive police violence.  It’s not an easy list to read, but it’s something we have to acknowledge.  It’s something the creator of this meme sorely needs to acknowledge:

  • Phillip White of Vineland, New Jersey, died on March 31, 2015, while being arrested by police for being disorderly and resisting arrest.  According to witnesses, White was already handcuffed and unconscious when police let their dog out of the car to attack him.
  • Victor White III of New Iberia, Louisiana, died under suspicious circumstances on March 2, 2014.  Here’s the story: A Sheriff’s deputy was responding to a report of a fight between two black men in a gas station parking lot.  He spotted White about six blocks away, and since White matched the extremely detailed description of the combatants, the deputy asked if he could perform a pat-down search.  White agreed, and was found to be carrying a small baggie of cannabis.  That’s all…just weed.  White was arrested and transported to the police station, where he allegedly refused to get out of the police car.  At that point, according to police reports, White produced a gun (that the deputy had somehow missed during the pat-down) and proceeded to shoot himself in the back…all while his hands were cuffed behind him.  The autopsy ruled his death a suicide, but said that the bullet had entered his chest instead of his back.
  • Kelly Thomas, a schizophrenic man in Fullerton, California, died on July 10, 2011, five days after being severely beaten by police.  His crime: looking into car windows and pulling on their handles.  A bystander recorded the brutal assault by multiple police officers, during which Thomas can be heard frantically apologizing to the police and begging for his father to help him.  On at least one occasion, Thomas moans “They’re killing me.”  Heartbreakingly, he was correct.
  • Jorge Azucena ran a red light and led police on a chase on September 6, 2013, in Los Angeles.  When he was finally apprehended, he suffered from a severe asthma attack.  He tried to tell police that he could not breathe; they ignored him.  By the time he reached the station, he was too weak to walk.  Officers dragged him into a holding cell and began to process him; his heart stopped before help could arrive.

And what about the completely innocent people killed by police?

  • On March 7, 2006, Joseph Hamley was shot and killed by Arkansas State Trooper Larry Norman, who mistook him for escaped convict Adam Lee Leadford, despite the fact that Hamley was four inches taller and 15 pounds heavier than Leadford.  Norman plead guilty to negligent homicide and served 54 days of a 90-day sentence.  He was later granted a full early medical retirement at the age of 40.
  • On October 7, 2009, a 15-year-old special-needs student named Marshawn Pitts from Dolton, Illinois, was slammed against lockers and the floor by his school’s safety officer, resulting in a broken nose.  Prior to the altercation, the officer reprimanded Pitts for not having his shirt-tail tucked in, a requirement of the school’s dress code.  Pitts allegedly made a rude comment to the officer, then tried to walk away.  In the aftermath of the incident, the officer resigned his position.
  • Back in Baltimore, a Marine veteran named Tyrone Brown was shot and killed on June 5, 2008, by off-duty police officer Gahiji Tshamba, after Brown allegedly made inappropriate sexual advances at Tshamba’s girlfriend.  Tshamba pushed Brown away, drew his service weapon, and shot Brown…twelve times.  Tshamba would later claim that Brown caused him to fear for his life, but witnesses at the shooting say that Brown had turned to leave when Tshamba shot him.  Tshamba was convicted of manslaughter and is serving a 15-year sentence.
  • On April 2, 2005, police from Golden Valley, Minnesota, handcuffed, pepper sprayed, and arrested Al Hixon for a local bank robbery, despite numerous reports that the suspect was a white man driving a white van, and Hixon was a dark-skinned black man driving a Jaguar.  Although no officers were charged in his false arrest, Hixon was awarded the largest police brutality damages in Minnesota history.

Want to know the saddest thing about this list?  It wasn’t that difficult to compile.  I literally had hundreds of cases to choose from, and that’s what makes it so baffling that anybody could create or pass on a meme like this one.  It should be so obvious that our country has been plagued, especially lately, by unjust arrests and police brutality.  We can no longer afford to believe that every arrest is called for, that every use of force is justified, that every shooting is necessary.  We can no longer blame the victims.  We can no longer assume that everybody who falls under a group of police officers’ punishing clubs is in fact a hardened criminal.  We have lost the luxury of naïvety; now we must be realists.

Lest you think I’m calling for the total expulsion of police officers everywhere, that is certainly not the case.  Police serve an invaluable purpose when they do their jobs well.  In an ideal situation, police are the knots that hold society’s threads together.  But there is a lot of power in those knots, and the rest of us must be hyper-vigilant and critical of the people we trust to wield that power.  And so should the police.  The police must clean up their own ranks if they want to regain the full trust and good faith of the public they serve.  It would benefit them well to do so.  No more excuses.  No more cover-ups.  No more lies.  Police departments must acknowledge the cancer that is slowly devouring the public’s faith in them, and then work to excise it, swiftly and totally.  Whenever a police officer ignores or excuses the problem, instead of acknowledging it and dealing with it head-on, he endangers himself and all other honest cops.  He increases the likelihood of difficult encounters between the police and the public.  By refusing to treat the wound, he allows it to fester.

I’ll close by amending the meme that inspired this post:


*For what it’s worth, Freddie Gray’s knife was deemed legal in the state of Maryland, although a police task force claimed that it was illegal within Baltimore city limits.