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Thursday, September 4, 2008

Losing The Battle Against Police Misconduct

The photo above is of a Kentucky University journalism student, with press badge, being doused with chemical spray before he was arrested. Note that it's clear he, the only one in range with a camera, is being intentionally targeted by the officer. The photo was taken by Matthew Rourke of the Associated Press, who was also arrested shortly after taking this photograph.
-source: The Kentucky Kernel

Slowly, but steadily, we are losing the battle against police misconduct.

The number of cases of misconduct appear to be growing...
Yet efforts to enact accountability reforms are constantly under attack by police organizations and grow more ineffectual each day as new loopholes in current accountability systems are discovered and abused.

Police unions and other organizations designed to increase the influence of the police in the political arena are growing rapidly in number and in strength...
Yet the number of citizen activists and organizations that deal with police misconduct issues are diminishing in number and in ability to talk freely about abuses.

New laws are continually being enacted to protect the police from charges of abuse and to keep the public in the dark about cases of misconduct, yet activists and the press continue to have access to disciplinary information restricted and their voices censored.

If all of this wasn't bad enough, then came St. Paul Minnesota where at least 9 journalists and photographers were detained so far this week while covering the police response to protests and several other journalists and police misconduct activists were detained and/or subjected to "preemptive" raids.

While those who were targeted in those raids have continued to cover police activities as best they can, the implications of these intimidating tactics and the arrest of credentialed journalists have sent a chill over all who try to cover police misconduct issues and act as advocates for victims of police brutality. It appears to signal a new chapter in the story of constant battle to improve accountability, the use of direct police action against critics by the police without any second thought to adverse public perception or civil rights abuse charges.

Even before these ominous actions were undertaken against those who dared to speak out against brutality and report about corruption, many have had to deal with more subtle forms of intimidation and threats by police officials and government agencies which have already taken their toll on the number of people who are willing to stand up and speak out about civil right and human rights abuses in the US.

In fact, several sites and organizations that cover police brutality have grown silent without any explanation in recent months. Most recently, just last month in fact, one of the most outspoken voices against police misconduct, BadCopNews, suddenly went quiet after posting volumes of information and stories of abuses in the US, at an average of at least a dozen stories of misconduct a day since 2001 in fact.

I've counted at least 6 other sites and organizations that have gone quiet this year alone, and I fear the actual number is likely much higher. While we can only speculate about the reasons why these citizen journalists and activists go silent, it's reasonable presumption that it has much to do with the intensive harassment such writers receive from the police, and not just the police departments that they normally cover.

This site itself, in fact, has been harassed by police organizations and officers from across the US, with messages ranging from illegitimate threats of legal action to outright threats of bodily harm and/or death if the site's writer, me, ever came to their town. Sadly, I'm not alone in that as I know of at least 5 other writers that have had to deal with similar threats, one of whom suddenly disappeared without a trace in July.

Things were already looking grim before those events of this week shattered the perception that, perhaps, our best chance at avoiding the possibility of such threats against us being acted on would hinge on us continuing to speak out about abuses, to continue to be seen and visible. It's now clear that this isn't the case as many of the journalists and activists who were arrested haven't even been mentioned in the media and experienced abuses and denials of medical care while imprisoned.

These are frightening times, if any readers wonder why I devoted so many posts to what was happening all the way out in Minnesota, consider this... if the police there can get away with doing that to credentialed members of the press, imagine what police anywhere in the US could get away with doing to one of us.

Don't get me wrong, I don't plan on voluntarily going under, if I am silenced it will be against my will, as I'm sure is true for those brave people still covering the protests in St.Paul as well. But I do want people to think about just how grave what happened in St. Paul this week really is. I want people to understand just how dangerous of a risk it is that the voices raised against police abuses are in danger of being silenced like this...

After all, if none are left to speak out about such abuses, just think how much worse those abuses are going to get.


akahn said...

Hey Packratt,

How would I get a high-resolution version of the photo at the top of the article? Any ideas?


Packratt said...

Sorry, was in a rush, you should be able to use the link now.


Karl Mansoor said...

Whoa on the negative outlook of current events relating to police misconduct!

Extremely tough battle – YES! But losing – NO!

It is true that incidents of misconduct are constantly in the news nationwide and apparently more prevalent. Yes, there is more and more video documentation, but that is a good thing.

It is not that more misconduct is occurring - it has always occurred. Rather, because of today’s technology more events are captured for the public to see. That is a good thing because that is the only way the problem will get addressed!

And as far as threats, intimidation, and retaliation – it is only cowards and bullies who engage in such actions. In the long run, they are always defeated by ethical and determined people.

So hang in there and don’t despair! Find allies and hold government officials accountable! Be persistent!

Packratt said...

Karl, thanks for the comment and encouragement.

Trust me, just not too long ago I also mentioned the increasing prevalence of personal video technologies and private CCTV as a key to reducing police misconduct and a possible cause of the increased awareness of misconduct.

However, what happens when we take the media out of the picture and allow police to either prevent video from being taken of them in the act or allow them to tamper with such evidence?

That's what I see happening here, and if it's allowed to stand it will set a very dangerous precedent that will hamper any attempts to document acts of misconduct and make them public knowledge, which is often necessary for any action to be taken on such incidents.

That's the point I'm making, that in addition to so many voices against police misconduct going silent this year, the actions taking place in Minnesota are frightening in their implications...

Why, just today there were several more arrests and attacks on clearly identified members of the press who were trying to record events as they occurred, here's one of the more frightening accounts I've heard yet.

Reporters Maced and Assaulted by police at protest

These attacks on the media are chilling, and what's worse is that the mainstream media is barely reporting on it. That's a clear indication that it will probably go unanswered.

Take care, Karl, and thanks again for reading, I appreciate it!

FBM said...

They are chilling and as a person who's worked in the media, I know that personally unfortunately because the police were very unhappy with articles I wrote. One officer was so upset that he stopped his car in front of me while I was trying to cross the street one night and yelled something about me writing the truth in "that rag of yours" or else before speeding off. He was investigated, an allegation sustained by the department and promptly promoted. Currently, he is president of the police union which tells you something about the culture of that agency. I still have lurid stories circulated about myself which trace back to him.

At any rate, it's just something that you have to deal with to varying degrees at different times if you write on and report on police abuse and misconduct. Police don't like it.

The video camera idea is a good one and one that's been encouraged in my city. There's a lot going on with the city manager clamping down on the police commission again b/c it "disobeyed" the city attorney's "advice" not to investigate an incustody death. The dismantlement of anything that has to do with community policing under the guise of "decentralizing" it and other problems including the potential rehiring of an officer who bragged (and was caught on tape) about beating people up and then coming up with a reason to take them to jail. Not surprising considering the city council voted to reinstate two fired officers who had been found to have planted evidence and lied about it on reports. In my state due to arbitration, an officer can only stay fired with a felony conviction.

Packratt said...

The same happens here, as I'm now sure it does most places. Police commonly make insinuations about reporters who write pieces on misconduct and issue threats to them and their employers almost as a reflexive action.

But, yes, it's something I have to learn how to live with, while I expected officers to be held to a higher ethical standard, I see that's just not the case.

I read about those stories on your site, it's disturbing to see how far officers can go while still keeping their jobs, but that was part of the point I'm making. Even when their abuses are made public and even when they can admit to abusing the public we still cannot seem to hold them accountable. Every day the abuses seem to get more blatant and egregious while there seems to be less and less that we can do about it.

As for cameras, as you said, even when caught it seems there is no real push to hold problematic officers or departments. When officers can get away with these things even with video evidence and witnesses, what else can we do?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not giving up, but I'm struggling to think of how to reverse this course we're on, where every day the police gain more power and greater immunity to accountability while we grow more and more powerless to do anything against their abuses.

Thanks for the comment, and keep on fighting!

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