Between Insensitivity and Despair

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.

4 Responses to Between Insensitivity and Despair

  1. Mark,

    The real problem with these incidents is that when the public DOES hear about them, they STILL assume the victim had it coming.

    In other words, the desensitization is THE EXACT OPPOSITE of what Greenfield thinks. The proliferation of crime dramas on TV and the proliferation of favorable police coverage in the news has already got the public thinking there is way more crime than there actually is – reports of these types do absolutely nothing to hurt police departments.

    There’s a reason Homicide and The Wire were low-rated TV shows, they depicted the exact opposite of what the public at large assumes police departments to be. The reason inner city residents have slowly stopped giving police the benefit of the doubt is because of first-hand experience, not because of news reports.

  2. Then there was this incident. From the article:

    …the police opened fire, killing Ms. [Tarika] Wilson, 26, and wounding her 14-month-old son…

    Tarika was on the second floor when the raid started. One SWAT officer rushed upstairs screaming commands. The officer heard gunfire and saw something move, so he opened fire with his military style combat rifle. Tarika was likely dead before she hit the floor. Her children saw her killed. Her 14 month old child lost a finger, grazed by a bullet.

    One officer involved in the raid, Sgt. Joseph Chavalia, a 31-year veteran, has been placed on paid administrative leave.

    Not much happened to Chavalia beyond his paid vacation. He was never charged with murder one, which is what his crime really was. The commercial media played down the police misconduct angle in favor of racial prejudice, which very likely exists in the Lima, OH police department.

    Until all police are held liable for their own criminal actions, the killing won’t stop. It won’t even slow down – why should it? There are no ramifications to any police officer for killing someone.

  3. Perp, You have a point. Television cop shows are full of cops who “don’t play by the rules.” Violent SWAT raids, questioning suspects without a lawyer, threats and torture—all of these are staples of cop shows. The good guys do them. On the new Hawaii Five-O, Steve McGarrett threatens suspects–he threw one of them in a cage in shark-infested waters–and it was played for laughs. On NCIS, Jethro Gibbs and Ziva David are supposed to be heroic because they can frighten suspects into confessing and giving up their accomplices. (And let’s not even get into Jack Bauer.) I guess it’s no wonder a few beatings and a little perjury by the real-life cops don’t attract much attention.

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