Enough time has passed, thankfully, that the kerfuffle over the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. by Cambridge police on the steps of his own house has died down. But the issue of police behavior in America hasn't gone away.
Between the excessive law-and-order attitudes of eight years of the Bush administration, general post-Sept. 11 paranoia, and the expansion of power granted by the Roberts Court, what law enforcement is able to get away with in the modern day is breathtaking.
Think about it. Currently, a police officer, at barely the slightest provocation, can essentially torture with electricity a citizen who merely challenges the authority of the cop. Such regular use and abuse of tasers have incapacitated and killed people across the country. Such as the instance of Preston McCann, a 23-year-old Boonsboro, Md. man who, last September, attempted to help an elderly woman who needed to change her tire. He flagged down a police officer for help and when the officer seemed determined to revoke the woman's license for "diminished mental capacity," McCann attempted to plead her case, according to the Maryland Gazette.
At no time did McCann use profanity or become physical in any way, but when Montgomery County police officer Robert Skelton felt he had enough of listening to McCann, the officer first shoved McCann 20 yards from the scene. And when McCann continued to protest--while asking why he would be subject to arrest--Skelton tased him with 50,000 volts.
On Nov. 3, 2009, Judge William Simmons Graves gave McCann one year probation for "intentionally and knowingly obstruct[ing] and hinder[ing] a police officer" and "intentionally resisting a lawful arrest." At the trial, with no jury, Graves ironically told McCann, "You are not a criminal, but you got caught up in your feelings about your rights."
Think about the case of 25-year-old Anthony Graber, a Maryland Air National Guard staff sergeant riding his motorcycle down I-95 north of Baltimore. Graber had a video camera mounted on his helmet. Not that it is incidental to the issue, but Graber was also speeding, doing 80 in a 65, and had been observed popping a wheelie.
Graber had no problem with the ticket he was issued--but when he posted the video on YouTube of his interaction with the non-uniformed officer who emerged, gun drawn, from the unmarked gray sedan that cut him off and pulled him over, that's when things got out of hand.
A month later, six police officers raided his parents' home where Graber lived with his wife and two kids, wherein he found out that Harford County prosecutors were so incensed about the internet video they felt the need to obtain a grand jury indictment. According to The Washington Post, the police were alleging that Graber violated the state's wiretap laws by videotaping the trooper in the original incident without his permission. Because of this, the officers confiscated four computers, the camera, external hard drives and thumb drives, and the only reason they didn't arrest Graber on the spot was because he was recovering from gall bladder surgery.
Last month, Graber was arraigned in Harford County Circuit Court and will spend 16 years in prison if he is convicted of all charges.
Harford prosecutor Joseph I. Cassily told The Washington Post: "The question is: Is a police officer permitted to have a private conversation as part of their duty in responding to calls, or is everything a police officer does subject to being audio recorded?"
And here is where we have gone over the edge.
The police officer is a public servant. When he is responding to a call, he is performing his duty as a public servant. How is his behavior in a traffic stop suddenly a private conversation? How is it that another public servant, a state prosecutor, does not understand this very simple concept?
If the cop who had pulled him over came out of the car, showed his badge, said, "Hey kid, slow down and don't pop the wheelies. You're young, you're in the military, and I'll cut you a break this time," perhaps it might have been a private conversation. But as soon as the officer acted in his behalf as an officer of the state, he's on the public's dime--which is why, also ironically, state troopers have dashboard cameras in their patrol cars, because of a settlement in 2003 over an ACLU lawsuit over racial profiling.
As this column is being written, a jury is deliberating in Oakland over a police officer charged with murder after he was videotaped shooting an unarmed man on a train platform last year. If it occurred in Maryland, once the verdict was rendered, would it not be surprising if the person who recorded the incident on a cell phone camera was hauled into court, accused of violating the state's wiretap laws? Or tased on the scene if he refused an order to put down the camera?
As we close the door on another Independence Day weekend, and you drive down the road seeing bumper stickers that say, "Freedom isn't free," how much thought do you give to what freedoms you truly have left?
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