Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice notes Radley Balko’s report on yet another report about police shooting an unarmed civilian during a raid and then worries that we’re seeing too many reports of this kind of thing:
I similarly take note of these incidents from time to time, having done so more frequently in the past than I have lately. Lately, these “isolated incidents” haven’t made it to the front page of SJ. It’s not because they aren’t worthy, or important, but that it plays into one of my greatest fears about police misconduct and abuse. My fear is that it happens with such regularity that we quickly become inured to it.
Too many brutal videos of police needlessly beating people and lying about it turn an outrage into the new normal.
I understand what he means: Watch too many videos of police brutality, read too many accounts of cops behaving like feckless thugs, and you could easily become desensitized it all. And you need a certain level of outrage if you hope to change things.
Nevertheless, I think we need to keep publicizing these incidents. You see, I think most of the people in this country don’t pay much attention to these kinds of issues. Scott Greenfield and Radley Balko and I are specialists, and so are our readers. We’re all aware to some degree that the abuse of police power has reached dangerous levels, and for us these stories are major news events that bounce around our corner of the blogosphere for days.
But out in the real world, out in the mainstream media, nobody is paying attention. Ourside of our little niche of the blogosphere, nobody noticed when Siobhan Reynalds was silenced by an unethical prosecutor, or when a SWAT team killed a 68-year-old grandfather of twelve in Massachusetts, or when a judge ignored the First Amendment to rule that we have no right to record public activities of on-duty cops, or when Oakland County, Michigan cops raided a medical marijuana dispensary and took all the money from the wallets and purses of everyone present, or even when Sal Culosi’s family got a 2 million dollar settlement from the murdering cops of Fairfax County, Virginia.
While we run some risk of becoming desensitized by the unending stream of incidents, I think the bigger problem is that a far larger number of people haven’t become aware of them. So I think we need to keep publicizing them, even at the risk of making ourselve numb to the horror, so that more people will become aware.
Personally, however, my biggest problem with all these incidents is not desensitization but despair. Consider that the first time I heard about a few police departments using in rem civil forfeiture to take suspected drug dealers’ money and property without a criminal trial, I was outraged. Whenever I read about it, or even thought about it, I could feel my body becoming pumped up with adrenaline as I seethed with anger. I thought that as soon as word about this outrageously illegal and unjust practice got out, heads would roll. And honestly, I wouldn’t have been terribly upset if the perpetrators of civil forfeiture had been literally beheaded by angry mobs. I was that enraged by it.
That was twenty years ago.
Nowadays, civil forfeiture is routinely used for even minor crimes by almost every law enforcement entity in the country. Pull your car over to the curb to solicit a street prostitute, and the government can seize your car. You can lose your house because your kid has a pot plant hidden in the basement. You can end up paying a multi-thousand dollar penalty without due process.
And almost nobody cares.
In twenty years, nothing I’ve done, nothing I’ve said, nothing I’ve written has made any difference. Civil forfeiture happens so often that I could write an article a day about the injustice of it all, and I’d never run out of incidents. But what would be the point? Is there any chance it would really do any good? Sometimes, I just can’t see how I could possibly make a difference.
So for me, that’s the risk of publicizing so many incidents of police abuse. Not that we will become desensitized to the injustice, but that we will fall into despair at the size of the task we are facing.
Still, nothing will change if no one talks about the problem.