I had a very different post planned for this week’s SMS, but saw two videos that completely made me rethink what I wanted to write. I tried to get it in by this last weekend, but other obligations had me busy, which was good because it gave me more time to digest what I had seen so I can better articulate what it is I wanted to say. It gave me a chance to think about how I wanted to preface this article because I didn’t want any of our readers thinking that their resident optimist was just a surly bastard after all.
The first video I saw was taken at an incident in 2012 where cops shot a 22 year old man, Steven Rogers, five times as he exited a Carl’s Jr. in Monterey Park, CA. Yes, he had caused property damage and yes, he was carrying a a weapon (a pipe) in his hand, but based on what was shown in the video, five shots seemed wildly excessive. Especially when the officer had a K9 right there that could have neutralized the situation without killing the suspect.
The second video I saw was of Tuscan Police Department Sgt. Joel Man, dressed in full riot gear, violently slamming 21 year old student Christina Gardilcic to the ground during a University of Arizona student riot–which Ms Gardilcic was apparently trying to get away from–following their basketball team’s loss to Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament. These two incidents are only scratching the surface of recent reports of police using excessive force.
In 1993 the LAPD’s severe beating of Rodney King brought the issue of police brutality to the national spotlight for my generation. It was not the first instance of police brutality, of course, but it was unique in that, to the best of my knowledge, it was the first time an average citizen had caught police using excessive force on video. As a teenager growing up in San Diego, my friends and I were aware of the issues of police brutality before Rodney King was assaulted. We had heard about it in NWA songs and seen it in Boyz n the Hood, but we had yet to witness it happening the way it happened in the Rodney King video.
Now Rodney King was definitely not a saint. In the movie American History X, Edward Norton’s character has a monologue about how society would be singing a very different song had Rodney King killed someone while he drunkenly fled from the police. It’s a valid (though hypothetical) argument and demonstrates that American History X is one of those films that asks the tough questions while providing no easy answers. Here’s the thing though: Rodney King didn’t plow through any innocents when he was finally pulled over and, even if he had, it was not the job of the arresting officers to beat him mercilessly, resulting in “11 skull fractures, permanent brain damage, broken [bones and teeth], kidney damage [and] emotional and physical trauma.” The Rodney King video was the first of its kind for my generation, but definitely not the last. In the videos I’ve observed, I have yet to see an instance of police using excessive force where it appeared to be truly warranted.
Even after the Rodney King video, the issue of police brutality didn’t concern me. After all, the belief was that those were “black problems,” and only affected people from Compton and other less famous ghettos. At least, that was the thinking and, even if it were true, it would have been wrong for me to not have concern or empathy for people in those situations. In my defense, I was 13. The only things I was concerned about were video games and girls. So at 33 I’m trying to make up for lost time.
“When I was in the Air Force they taught us that integrity was doing right when nobody was watching. It seems that due to some fraction of cops lacking integrity it’s a good thing that everybody is watching… and recording.”
It seems that instances of police brutality are happening more and more frequently, and further and further away from the ghettos we believe these incidents would typically be restricted to. Is this due to a sudden change in the hiring practices of our community police departments? I doubt it. I think the reason is that now more than at any other point in history, due to the prevalence of smartphones and other technology, almost every person is walking around with a camera in their pocket, ready to pull it out and get their 15 minutes of YouTube fame whenever they come across a situation that seems remotely interesting. This is a good thing for us and a bad thing for those cops who lack self-control.
When I was in the Air Force they taught us that integrity was doing right when nobody was watching. It seems that due to some fraction of cops lacking integrity it’s a good thing that everybody is watching… and recording. Maybe knowing this will prevent the Fullerton Police Department from beating another mentally ill citizen to death while he cries for help from his dad as happened to 37 year old Kelly Thomas. Knowing their actions have been caught on camera might prevent the Moore Oklahoma PD from murdering a husband and father in front of his wife and kids while he’s trying to diffuse a domestic dispute. Perhaps David Silva would be alive today if the Kern County Sheriff’s Office knew that his death cries were being recorded.
I’m by no means an anarchist. I do not advocate or make calls for overthrowing the government (regardless of who’s sitting in the White House) or terrorizing police officers. Since I’ve lived in Utah I have had roughly five encounters with cops. And in four of the five encounters, they have been very professional and courteous. Two have even let me off with warnings when they could easily have cited me. The majority of police officers in this country are hard working men and women who care about their communities and put their lives on the line daily. I recognize and thank them for that. So I am not calling for citizens to attempt coups, but I do call for us to be vigilant and stand up for our rights and not be afraid to speak up and pull out our cameras when we witness police using excessive force. I’m well aware that a lot of departments are now enforcing the use of lapel cameras on their officers, but as the LAPD just showed, someone needs to be watching the watchmen. That someone is you and me. This constant vigilance could help to ensure that, someday, you don’t fall victim to police brutality.