Category Archives: Everything Else

Young White Privilege, a Camera, and an Apparently Good Cop

I teach a sociology class called “Policing and Society” at a state college in Northern New Jersey, not far from where I live in New York City. My class is almost evenly split between white, African-American and Latino students. Some come from the ghettos of Paterson and Camden, some from wealthy Bergen County suburbs. Most want jobs in law enforcement.

Not surprisingly, my students have been sharing with me videos of police interactions captured by bystanders or police-issued body and dash cameras all semester long. Most depict suspected misconduct and abuse, but a few portray police men and women doing the right thing under remarkably stressful circumstances.

There’s one that’s apparently gone viral over Facebook (shown here from Youtube) that was brought to my attention earlier this week. We watched it together, all of us, and it sparked a discussion I was grateful to have; it was was probably the most honest and open one we’ve had all semester around this difficult topic.

Very simply, it captures the eviction of a group of young people (and the eventual, lawful arrest of one of them) from an IHOP by a Fort Wayne, Indiana, policeman. By the opinion of most who have viewed it, attempts by the amateur videographer to capture “police brutality” and improper use of force have backfired. The officer involved instead appears remarkably restrained and professional despite behavior that can only be called reprehensible and most certainly criminal.

The larger point the video made to me, though, and that my class seemed to agree with (across racial and cultural lines) is this: If you don’t believe that young, white kids- from what appear to be at least middle class backgrounds- expect to be treated differently by police and are more emboldened to challenge their authority, you’re not living in the real world.

Of course, what’s depicted is only what was captured in one place on one night. Still, there is the undeniable hint of a microcosm here in terms of what these youth regularly believe is not only survivable, but not even reckless. In some way, in their minds, it’s actually appropriate. Don’t like what a cop is telling you to do? Scream in his face and dare him to arrest you. Have a friend follow along with a phone camera, demanding explanations from him from a couple of feet away as he tries to do his job in the face of despicable, taunting vulgarity and a repeated refusal to cooperate. Why not? What’s the worse that’ll happen?

Then contrast that with the young, African-American men in the same video, at just before the 1:00 mark, who look on silently and are utterly non-confrontational. There’s no evidence they were involved with the offending crowd in any way to begin with, and also none that the responding officer would have treated them any differently. Regardless, whatever their intentions were or their attitudes toward police are, they kept those things to themselves.

Why? Because they’re not stupid.

Neither are my students.

Injecting Reality Into Nonsense: PCAR & the Letourneau/Faulaau Interview

The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape has done a great service to sanity in releasing an edited, non-sanitized version of what ABC’s press release on Barbara Walters’ interview with Mary Letourneau and Villi Faulaau should have looked like from the start.

PCAR’s unblinking release speaks for itself, but among the idiocies that it should help to contradict is the notion that Letourneau at this point really should be forgiven, since she’s been married to Faulaau for 10 years now- a longer period than many marriages in non-criminal circumstances.

Here’s a thought: Faulaau is likely still in a marriage with Letourneau because he was raped and broken at a remarkably tender age. His bouts with depression and substance are only a part of the testimony to this. His entire life was truncated and derailed to a degree none of us will ever fully know. This was done by Letourneau, willingly and repeatedly, until he was trapped, largely stripped of his identity, and lost.

Letourneau destroyed him. The fact that she’s “kept” him so far makes her no less evil, destructive, and selfish.

 

“Couch-Surfing” Teenager Sexually Victimized: Sadly, Not Surprising

I wish I could say I was surprised. In 2013 I wrote a piece on what I believe are the inherent dangers associated with the “couch surfing” phenomenon, and sadly why I do not believe that the organization (Couchsurfing is described as a Certified B Corporation) has sufficient procedures or even warnings in place to prevent the kind of abuse that can occur under its rubric.

Next month, an Italian policeman, Dino Maglio, will go on trial for the rape of an Australian woman 16 years-old at the time of the crime when she was staying at his home on a visit to Italy. Her outcry and the resulting case has led other victims of the same man to come forward as well. It seems apparent that Maglio had an effective cover within the couch surfing world as a policeman, among other things.

Unfortunately, he also had an effective platform in Couchsurfing itself, and in its (in my estimation) “kind of feel your way” approach to judging the safety of a situation from afar, and then in the moment.

I’m still confident that couch surfing is a harmless and indeed quite positive experience for the great majority of those who utilize it. Regardless, one life-changing crime is too many, and it appears that Couchsurfing is still far too vulnerable to infiltration by offenders who probably find it remarkably convenient and victim-rich.

In my view, Couchsurfing enthusiasts and the leaders of the organization need to take a hard look at how the safety of a particular situation can be and/or is evaluated by typical users, and how users can better ensure against inevitable abuse.

I don’t claim to have many answers, but I’ll offer this hint: Communication, no matter how robust, with the host, and even face-to-face conversation before unrolling a sleeping bag, will not be enough.

 

The Rice Videotape: When An Unblinking Eye is Ugly But Necessary

HiResUnmanned, stationary video is a cold observer. It will not blink in disbelief. It will not turn away in horror. It will not cloud over with tears of pure, human empathy. But sometimes it’s the only accurate source for the truth about what individuals are capable of. Not monsters. Not demons. Just people.

In 2011, a Texas family court judge was forced to acknowledge the sadistic and brutal beating of his 16 year-old daughter who suffers from cerebral palsy because of a hidden webcam she set up in desperation. In 2013, a 14 year-old French girl compelled an admission of sexual abuse by her father through the same technology. These two children would likely never have been believed were it not for the passive, electronic observer that forced action, justice and- importantly- an acceptance of responsibility from the attackers.

Enter Ray and Janay Rice.

Ms. Rice considers her husband’s breathtakingly vicious attack of her, and then his dragging her body, skirt hiked up on a cold, hotel floor moments after, to be a part of their private lives. She seems yet to acknowledge a single act of wrongdoing on his part, instead characterizing what he did as “a moment in our lives.” She appears to be willing to support and stand by him regardless of what he did to her, what he might have done before, and what he might do again- even while she is pregnant with his child.

What are the chances, then, that Janay would ever have been forthcoming about what was done to her in that now infamous elevator- assuming she could even remember it accurately? Forget about the courtroom. What about the kind of honest detail that might have led to forcing Ray Rice to take real responsibility for a possibly permanent brain injury? What about the kind of detail that might have compelled him to examine his character and his choices, especially now that he will be a father?

Given her public statements, it is not likely that Janay would have spoken at all to anyone who might have made a difference, whether an NFL official, a judge, a counselor or anyone else. She’s in love. She’s made her choice.

But where criminal acts concerned, not all of the choices are hers to make. There are at least two entities that have an interest when a crime of violence occurs and criminal charges are brought: The victim herself (or himself) and the community as a whole. The community in this case- at least Atlantic County, New Jersey, the prosecutorial jurisdiction where this crime took place- has a right to the truth, as much as it can be ascertained, in order to decide what Ray Rice did to violate their laws and what he deserves because of it (no comment, for now, on how the case was legally resolved).

Without the video, it is highly unlikely that Rice’s brutality would ever be fully known- both in terms of the lightning blow he was willing to unleash into a woman’s face and the callous way in which he then dragged her around. Even assuming an out of character, mental snap due to rage, Rice could have knelt beside her and comforted her. He could have called for help and admitted a terrible, momentary wrong. Instead he dragged her like an inconvenient bag of garbage. We know that now, because we’ve seen it.

What Janay Rice is 100% correct about is that the repeated, for-entertainment viewing of the video tape of her abuse is exploitive and abusive itself; her pain should not be minimized nor her feelings invalidated. She is unfortunate with regard to being married to a public figure and now being at the center of a tragically public case. But given her unwavering support of a man who attacked her, given the child who will soon become a part of their dynamic, and given a desperate need for society as a whole to wake up to the undiluted reality of intimate partner violence, there is value in the videotape’s existence if not gross proliferation.

It’s awful. But it’s the truth. And the truth matters, even when love would conceal it.

Contempt of Cop, And That Might Be It

iStock_000004808004_SmallI’ve worked closely with police officers my entire professional life, and I find most to be decent, honorable men and women who do a difficult job with a surprising amount of professionalism. I’m far from anti-cop. But sometimes it appears obvious that breaking the law isn’t what will get you arrested. Simply disobeying a police officer, even with the right to do so, might do it.

That’s anathema to the rule of law.

A disturbing video posted by the African-American political and cultural opinion magazine “The Root” shows a black man arguing with police officers, one male and one female and both white, in St. Paul, Minnesota in January and eventually being tasered and then arrested. It’s news again in light of recent events, and race is an assumed factor. At one point in his filming of the incident, the man interrupts the female officer and says “the problem is I’m black.” The two are then joined by a male officer who immediately demands that he put his hands behind his back. A struggle ensues, he’s tasered and then arrested.

I honestly don’t know if race was a factor for the officers involved. I’d like to think it wasn’t, but I completely understand those who most certainly do. Regardless, what bothered me most about the exchange I saw was simply the illegality of what seems to be happening. Apparently charges against the man for trespass, disorderly conduct and disrupting the legal process were dropped.

Understanding that cell phone video is hardly an infallible source of context in a tense situation, watching this one will not yield a single explanation by the officers as to why the man is being arrested that cites Minnesota law or local ordinance. I watched it repeatedly; I don’t hear it. Reports suggest a store clerk called with some concern about his presence as a possible loiterer although he was in a public place. The responding officer demands he identify himself. He refuses, as is apparently his right under Minnesota law. She appears to follow him as he walks away, at one point explaining her demand saying “this is what police officers do when they’re called.”

That may be, but that doesn’t make the demand legal. And if it’s not legal, and no other crime is occurring, she needs to shrug and walk away. Period. But police officers increasingly seem not to want to do that.

In February, a California Highway Patrolman arrested a firefighter who refused to move a fire truck at the patrolman’s insistence while working a car wreck. The firefighter was ordered released and later filed a complaint. Details are in dispute, but it seems as if he was handcuffed and placed in a cruiser simply because he disobeyed the command of the CHP, regardless of the letter of the law.

Like any institution that provides for trappings of authority, deadly weapons and combat training, police agencies sometimes attract bullies and others with big egos and little patience. I believe this is not the norm in American policing but generally an exception. I’ve not only worked closely with cops all of my life, I’ve befriended many. I’ve heard countless head-shaking stories (that never reach the media) of cops who have not used deadly force despite the actions of belligerent and aggressive people who threaten their lives and refuse to obey reasonable commands.

Still, there is justifiable criticism being leveled against the militarization of American police forces and the rise of the “warrior cop.” Engaging the community from behind barricades with automatic weapons is largely counterproductive and stupid. But what’s worse is ignoring the law and putting people in chains and cages- regardless for how long or to what eventual end- simply because they’ve made a cop angry. It doesn’t work that way. It can’t work that way.

As a young prosecutor I practiced before an old and quirky but wonderful judge named Dan O’Flaherty. He showed me once how he kept a copy of Virginia’s contempt of court statute (the one that allows judges to jail people on the spot for in-court behavior) actually taped to the bench where he sat. His reason? When he was insulted or otherwise disrespected by someone before him, he took time to read the statute and think very carefully before even threatening the person with contempt. Because sometimes what they were doing was infuriating, but not illegal.

Anyone with the honor of wielding a badge and a gun needs to understand that as well.