Cops Aren’t Above the Law

As I have said many times before, I have the deepest respect for public safety officials—police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians (EMT’s), and so on. Most of the people who choose to work in these fields are heroes. They are willing to risk their lives day-in and day-out to serve and protect the ‘regular folks’ in their communities . . . you know, people like me, who wouldn’t have the guts to do what they do.

They are, however, human beings . . . which means they make mistakes. Because of the nature of their work, sometimes those mistakes cost lives. There are times when police officers use deadly force, believing they or others are at serious risk of harm, and it turns out that the kid was wielding a toy gun or some other innocuous object. I understand these realities, and tend to defend law enforcement officers’ actions except when there is clear evidence of wrongdoing on their part.

But I also have little sympathy for those officers who abuse or overstep their authorities—and there are far too many of them. In my own very limited dealings with law enforcement, I have been the victim of [minor] police abuse two times. Once, Officer Graham Buck of the Fairfax County Police Department (FCPD) called my high school principal and told her that I was a dangerous anarchist (what?). Another time, Officer George Lopez (of the same department) verbally abused and threatened me because I misinterpreted his vague hand gestures. Neither Buck nor Lopez were formally reprimanded for their actions against me.

This lack of official response highlights the ‘good ol’ boys’ network—that strange brotherhood within the law enforcement community that leads even good cops to defend their peers at all costs, no matter how badly they have overstepped their authorities.

Another time, one of my neighbors yelled, “Asshole!” at a driver who decided to drive through a neighborhood block party. The driver abruptly stopped his car and confronted my neighbor. He was aggressive enough that, if I had done it, I probably would have been carted off to jail for disorderly conduct or assault. He was aggressive enough that I had my hand in my pocket, gripping a can of pepper-spray, worried that I was about to have to use it to protect myself and my neighbors. If I had been carrying a firearm at the time, I likely would have had my hand on it instead.

When my neighbor threatened to call the police, the aggressor told us that he wasn’t worried . . . he was a federal law enforcement officer, and he was buddies with all the local cops. When a deputy from the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO) arrived, sure enough, he just pulled the guy off to the side, talked to him for a few minutes, and sent him on his way . . . and then proceeded to lecture everybody at the block party about how we shouldn’t call people assholes (even if they’re being assholes) and how he could charge us all for blocking a privately owned street, but he was going to be nice and let us off with a warning.

I lost some respect for the LCSO that day . . . much like I had lost respect for the FCPD years earlier. Every law enforcement officer has a responsibility to hold his or her fellow officers to the absolute highest standards. Indeed, when law enforcement officers break the law they should be held more accountable than your average ‘civilian,’ on the presumption that people who spend their lives enforcing the law ought to be even more familiar with it and have even more respect for it than your average citizen. And if police officers want to have the respect and cooperation of the people they are charged to protect, then they should care about what we think of them. They should go to great lengths to act ‘by the book’—dispassionate, reasonable, and above board. There should be no question about their priorities or their fairness, and there should be no question about whether their fellow officers are subject to the same laws as everybody else.

These incidents were small compared to the kind of police abuse we are seeing nationwide. Too many law enforcement officers are adopting tactics that would fit better under a totalitarian regime than under a free republican government. For example, in 2008, Prince George’s County Police officers in Maryland stormed into an innocent citizen’s home—a citizen who happened to be the mayor of Berwyn Heights—and shot his dogs. Officers entered his home without probable cause and outside of the authority granted by their warrant (which did not authorize a ‘no-knock’ entry), which means they were committing a series of felonies and assaults and firearms violations, no less than if I had stormed into the home and shot those dogs. And, more and more, police officers are claiming that we don’t have the right to take video of them, which would be a good way of helping to protect our rights.

There is an entire web site—Photography is Not a Crime—dedicated to stories of law enforcement officers harassing citizen journalists, photographers, and videographers for the ‘crime’ of exercising their First Amendment rights to film in public places. In one such incident (described here and shown in the video below), a group of filmmakers in Florida operating under the name UhOhMonkey were arrested on a November evening for recording a public beach from a public observation deck. Officers claimed the filmmakers were trespassing, even though there were no signs restricting access and the deck was not listed as one of the public parks only open from dawn to dusk. Officers also claimed that the Deerfield Beach, Florida, municipal code required filmmakers to get a permit . . . a code that is, in my opinion, a blatant violation of the First Amendment anyway. But even if it were legal, the code in question also says that it “shall not apply to nor in any way restrict the use of cameras by amateur or professional photographers not using set scenery, casts, or models.”

As you can see in the video below, officers confronted the UhOhMonkey filmmakers, and when they had the temerity to defend their perfectly legal activities the officers suddenly turned violent. They assaulted the filmmakers, damaged and seized expensive photography equipment, ordered them to stop filming, put the men in handcuffs, and carted them off to jail. The memory cards in the cameras were kept ‘as evidence’ even when the other equipment was returned, and when the memory cards were finally returned they had been tampered with. Some incriminating video of the police officers’ actions had been modified or deleted. Charges against the men of UhOhMonkey were eventually dropped, but they have not been reimbursed for the damage done to their property, or for the time they had to spend in jail.

Again, when police officers act outside of their legally-conferred authorities, they are subject to the same laws you and I are. In this case, there was no probable cause, there was no reasonable suspicion that a crime had occurred or was going to occur, and there was no threat to public safety. Everything that these officers did after the initial interaction (i.e., seeing what they are doing and, if necessary, taking a look at their identification) was not just unnecessary, it was criminal. I can’t walk up to some filmmakers, kick their cameras to the ground, put them in a headlock, put them in handcuffs, detain them overnight, seize their property, and tamper with their recordings . . . and, absent any reasonable suspicion or probable cause, neither can the police.

These officers ought to put up on charges, and they ought to be run out of the force by their fellow officers . . . because their fellow officers ought to take their responsibilities to the law seriously. Law enforcement officials can use force—including deadly force—in the proper execution of their authorities, but once they step outside of those bounds they have no more right to assault people, detain people, or seize property than I do. Each of the officers involved with the attack on the UhOhMonkey filmmakers should be immediately suspended without pay and charged with assault, destruction of property, unlawful detention, and violations of citizens’ First and Fourth Amendment civil rights. Police officers are not above the law.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.