Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Do We Have a Constitution, Officer?

A country is only as democratic as its police, and Constitutional rights are only as real as its police treat them. The fight over police work in America is ultimately a fight over whether or not the United States Constitution is real.

The Constitution plainly states that no person "shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." It could not be clearer. It could not be more essential. But in 2015 we hear apologists for police misconduct, across our country, loudly advocating a civil order where the police can punish any citizen who does not comply swiftly enough to please the police officer, where police can arrest citizens without cause, where police officers can kill unarmed citizens with impunity to guard against hypothetical and thoroughly imaginary dangers. There is no due process of law. You have no rights.

Officer Michael Brelo, recently acquitted of manslaughter in Cleveland, stood on the hood of two unarmed citizens' car and shot fifteen bullets into their windshield. Brelo had already shot 32 other bullets at that car. In fact, Brelo and his fellow officers, who shot 137 bullets at those two unarmed citizens, were also shooting at each other, because they had surrounded the car and were shooting into a circle. Brelo, the only one prosecuted for shooting, was standing on the hood of the victims' car because, even if they had had a gun, Brelo knew they were no longer in condition to return fire.

Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams's lives were taken, by paid agents of the state, without due process. There was no trial. There was no judicial process, and there are no consequences. Nor was there ever any danger to any police officer except from other police officers. The chase (which involved more than a hundred cops) began because Russell and Williams's car had backfired and a jumpy police officer, hearing an engine backfire, decided that he was being shot at.

The police can take two citizens' life in response to their own fantasies. They go free after doing it. The Constitution is not in force. We do not live in the country we say we do.

In Baltimore, Freddie Gray was arrested for no reason that the police themselves can explain. He was arrested without committing a crime; he had looked at a police officer, and then he had run. Baltimore police officers punished these non-crimes by arresting Gray, and by beating him; he was limping on his way into the police van. He was dead when he came out. But other citizens put into Baltimore police vans have come out with broken bones, concussions, and spinal damage: the Baltimore cops' way of dispensing "justice" without any judge, without any chance for the citizen to defend or explain himself, without any law needing to be broken at all.

Did they mean to kill Freddie Gray? Or did they just mean to punish him by doing him bodily harm, without due process of law? Either way, there is no Constitution in Baltimore. This is not the America we talk about.

Police officers in Cleveland, in Baltimore, and across the country, consider themselves entitled to beat citizens who don't cooperate as the police officers see fit, to beat citizens who say something a police officer doesn't like, to beat citizens who make the police officers run. They see this as their right and their privilege. They don't ask a judge. They don't bother with the law. Your rights in the Constitution are not your rights, because the police don't bother with them.

People who excuse or encourage this behavior, who say that you're in no danger if you obey a police officer, should be up front about what they believe. They believe in abolishing the Constitution. They trust the police, any specific police officer on any given day, more than they trust the Founders. If your Constitutional rights can be voided whenever a cop, any cop, in any mood, decides to give you an order, then you have no Constitutional rights. The Founders deliberately decided that no one in our system, not even George Washington himself, could be trusted with unchecked power. Allowing police to dole out any punishment they see fit to anyone who disobeys any order, even unlawful orders, is a mockery and misunderstanding of everything our system was meant to be.

I am from a family of police officers. I grew up around police officers, including many, many officers I love and admire. I know lots of good cops. But I have never known a cop who was not a human being, with human failings. I have never met a police officer who should be allowed to do anything he or she wants without accountability. Thomas Jefferson mocked the idea of "angels sent as kings," by divine right; certainly, a system that requires all police to be angels, because they are empowered to do whatever they want, is even worse.

Yesterday Cleveland agreed to Justice Department oversight for the Cleveland Police. That oversight includes things like not beating suspects who are already in custody and in handcuffs. But that is not a new rule. That was always the rule. The Cleveland police knew that rule and disobeyed it. That Cleveland police officers did that, time and again, shows that they have routinely ignored the law, that they consider themselves above the law and can not be held accountable. The New York Police Department forbids its officers to use chokeholds on suspects, and has forbidden that for years, but for years its officers routinely did it anyway. The six Baltimore police officers who took Freddie Gray on his fatal ride all told their superiors the same story, a story that did not match video evidence. Lying and falsifying reports has become routine. Standing orders are routinely ignored. It is clear that in many police departments, the rules that are written down are not actually obeyed, and the focus is on protecting one's fellow officers from oversight.

Every cop is not bad. But when police are not properly supervised and held accountable, then the bad cops are put in charge and the good ones have to follow their lead. When the police avoid the authority of the laws, then there are no laws but the police.

If the police are not answerable for what they do, then nothing else matters. If they are beyond the law, then none of us are safe from them. If the police need not answer for what they do to us, then the police become, in the most literal way, irresponsible. And then the Constitution is just some words on paper, no more real or meaningful than the beautiful and high-minded constitutions of every other police state.

Michael Brelo was acquitted because the judge said no one could prove that Michael Brelo's shots killed the two unarmed people who had committed no crime. After all, by the time Brelo was standing on the hood of the car, both of those victims were probably already dead. But that means Brelo was standing there, pouring fifteen more bullets into two defenseless human bodies, to make sure that neither of them survived. Think about that when you go to sleep tonight, and try to pretend that you have any rights.

cross-posted from Dagblog