Saturday, August 07, 2010

When soothing lies go wrong

Radley Balko has been writing quite a bit lately about incidents of people being harassed, arrested, or having their property confiscated by law enforcement for recording video or audio of their encounters with police in public places, frequently involving police who cite completely imaginary state laws against the practice. From Ohio- where videotaping police is quite legal- Balko brings this story. Melissa Greenfield and her boyfriend Colton Dorich had pulled into a truck stop after running out of gas. Dorich made a sign asking passing drivers for gas money, which apparently caused someone to call the police, resulting in the arrival of Sgt. Jonathon Burke of the Delaware County Sheriff's Department, who questioned the couple.

What I find especially worth noting about the story is that it provides a very vivid example of one of the dismaying aspects of modern law enforcement: The supposed justifications given for objectionable behavior by police are, if actually true, frequently just as damning as the criticism they're supposed to ward off.

From the article:
"I'm a 115-pound, 20-year-old girl wearing a cervical collar with nothing but a cell phone. I was not going to harm any officer," Greenfield said today. However, a sheriff's sergeant saw the situation differently after Greenfield announced she was recording video "for legal purposes and our own safety."

Sgt. Jonathan Burke wrote that he repeatedly ordered Greenfield to place the "unknown" object in her pocket and keep her hands free. When Greenfield refused, she was arrested and charged with obstructing official business and resisting arrest.

Burke wrote in his report that he feared that Greenfield could have been holding a dangerous object such as a "cell-phone gun." However, neither the sheriff's office nor the Columbus office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has ever come across one of the black-market devices that apparently are made in Eastern Europe...

The woman from Poway, Calif., pleaded no contest to obstructing official business. She was fined $20 and released with time served - three days in jail. The resisting-arrest charge was dropped. Greenfield said her plea was one of convenience to allow her to return home to receive treatment for her neck, which had been injured in a car wreck a few days earlier.

Greenfield said that, while driving her to the jail, Burke said that it was "unacceptable for me to be filming his activities."

Delaware County Sheriff Walter L. Davis III backed up Burke's actions. And, needless to say:
After Greenfield got her phone back, she said the video she took of the deputies at the Flying J truck stop at I-71 and Rt. 37 on July 9 had been deleted, along with a couple of vacation videos. Deputies did not delete any video, Davis said. A warrant would have been required to search the phone, and one was not obtained, he said.

Well, yes, but the fact that doing something would be corrupt and illegal is only a reason to think someone didn't do it if one is already assuming that their trustworthiness and integrity is unimpeachable, and going out of your way to prevent the creation of records of what you're doing on-duty while on the public payroll sort of works against that. The sad thing is that law enforcement enjoys enough reflexive deference among enough people for this to actually be a viable defense. (Think of how useful that would be in day-to-day life. "No, dear, of course I didn't lie about having a flat tire so that I could weasel out of my promise to see Cats with you for our anniversary and play Street Fighter IV on my friend's new HDTV instead. That would have been dishonest!")

People have been picking on Burke's bizarre "cell phone gun" claim, but that's not what makes his claims about his motives transparently ridiculous. It's his response to this supposed threat. If police officers genuinely believe that a person they are confronting may be pointing a gun at them, their response is not to repeatedly ask the possible gunman to put the suspected firearm back into their pocket. Neither "repeatedly ask" nor "back into their pocket" have any real-world referent in such a scenario. Even if police in this country were a lot more forbearing and restrained than I've come to expect, Burke's account would not be plausible, and in the "officer safety at any price" atmosphere that pervades so much of modern law enforcement it's utterly ludicrous.

(Also, cell phone guns do not function as electronic devices, since the original insides are removed to conceal the gun. If Burke knows how cell phone guns work and was willing to take enough time to repeatedly ask the woman to put her phone away, he could have easily confirmed that it was a real phone.)

But let's entertain his justification for a moment, and see what it implies. Suppose Burke is telling the truth, and he really did act the way he did because he was worried about a "cell phone gun."

There actually have been cases of people concealing firearms in cell phones. That, however, is merely a single example of the fact that weapons can be, and at some point or another probably have been, concealed in almost anything. Firearms have been hidden in flashlights, lipstick holders, beepers, pens, canes, and belt buckles. Virtually any bag, box, or container could contain explosives or incendiaries. The Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was murdered by a KGB assassin who stabbed him with a poison-injecting umbrella. A seemingly blind man with a white walking stick might actually be wielding a sword cane or a concealed single-shot gun. (And wearing darkened glasses that contain some sort of Predator-esque infrared targeting system, perhaps.) Any bulging pocket or billowing sleeve can contain a weapon. Any seemingly innocuous word or gesture could be a covert signal to a hidden accomplice or sniper or hit squad.

The point is this. Whenever you are among other humans, there are an innumerable number of possible means by which one of the people around you might injure or kill you, and there is always a chance, however small, that one of them possesses such a means and is about to attack you with it. Many of these are more likely than the the threat Burke was supposedly reacting to, often much more, and still not nearly likely enough to justify commanding or forcing people to preemptively "disarm" in the absence of any concrete reason to suspect a threat.

And here we see a phenomenon that is remarkably common when police are trying to explain or justify questionable behavior: The justification is as damning as the criticism it was meant to dispel. Greenfield accuses a police officer of abusing his authority, and the excuse given by the police is that what seemed like a police officer abusing his power to forcibly prevent a citizen from exercising her rights was actually just a police officer forcibly preventing a citizen from exercising her rights because he was lashing out at phantom threats while in the grip of some paranoid madness.

If I went around demanding that my fellow patrons at my local bar drink only from glasses if sitting in my vicinity (people are impuslve when they drink, and I could be shanked with a broken bottle), that anyone walking behind me on the sidewalk stay at least 15 feet back (might get thumped from behind), or that everyone turn out their pockets when I enter the room to show they contain no weapons, nobody would consider that reasonable behavior. My friends and family would fear that I had developed some terrible psychological or psychiatric problem. If I went beyond verbal demands and resorted to force, I'd be considered a menace to society.

And yet, the risks I'd be heading off are still more likely than the theoretically possible but wildly improbable risk Burke claims he feared. If Sergeant Burke really arrested Greenfield because he was worried about the possibility that a woman in a neck brace he had met while responding to a call about panhandling loiterers at a truck stop who said she was recording her encounter with him on a cell phone camera for legal reasons- which she had every right to do- was actually just pretending to record him so that she could murder him with a rare black market Eastern European gangland assassination weapon, then he is out of his mind.

If that's really true then Burke is a pitiable figure rather than a blameworthy one, but if anything the sheriff's department actually comes off looking worse. Even reasonable men can make tragic mistakes when watching for potential threats in stressful situations. Giving a gun and the task of enforcing the law to anyone as paranoid, fearful, and on-edge as Burke would need to be to truly think that his behavior was a reasonable response to danger is a disaster waiting to happen, and his superiors would be obscenely irresponsible to create such a risk. In turn, if Burke's superiors are being sincere when they back him up and say that his actions were a reasonable and proper response to a reasonable fear, that's even more ominous still, because that implies that the whole department is run by raving paranoiacs.

As I said above, I don't believe for a moment that Burke was actually motivated by fear of secret weapons, or that his own superiors really think he was. What troubles me more than the dishonesty is the fact that many people, I'm sure, will accept the excuses given by Burke and by Sheriff Davis. In other words, they will accept the idea that it's actually appropriate for the police to view all the rest of us with the sort of hysterical paranoia that Burke's "justification" implies, and treat us accordingly.

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