Cops and the Law: The Good, Bad and Ugly
A Social-Judicial Commentary
Cops and the Law: The Good, Bad and Ugly
A Social-Judicial Commentary
By: J. Marlando
This article is devoted to law makers and enforcers in the U.S. but I have also known law enforcement officials in places such as Mexico and Asia. In this regard there is an old saying that, in general, applies. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely no matter what part of the world one is in.
Why do many American cops, over time, become belligerent pillars of arrogance. Well, there is the obvious: Cops see the worst of humanity in that they are on the scene to witness the horrible side of human behavior. For example, they see the bloody results of drunk driving; they witness the results of the rapist, the child molester, the murderer and thief; they are constantly confronted with horrifying domestic violence and petty thieves to the most serious (and dangerous) criminals. In short they typically exist amidst society’s most despairing, desperate and often dangerous people; those crazy-makers that weave their way through the rest of society committing crimes and harming others.
Most average citizens have never known the real thug or dangerous criminal. I have. As a writer, I have been assigned to at least one of the most dangerous, neurotic killers and thieves of the times. He was frightening just to be around and was obviously a psychopath. He had been released from prison on a technicality and my job was to tell his story. In the past I have also known real mobsters, gang members and addicts. There really are people out there who could kill you and go out to lunch without a second thought. This is the reality that a great many cops live in and so one can understand why neurosis is a term that can also be applied to so many folks behind the badge and how the good cop can evolve into the bad and ugly.
Most recently we (the people) have been getting a lot of reports about police shooting; the kind of cop-killings that mostly were covered up not long ago. In fact, to this day, we still don’t know how many unnecessary police shootings remain under reported or not made public at all. According to a Washington Post article, “The vast majority of victims—more than 80 percent—were armed with potentially lethal objects, primarily guns, but also knives, machetes and revving vehicles’ in one case, a nail gun.
“Forty-nine people had no weapon, while the guns wielded by 134 others turned out to be toys. In all, 16 percent were either carrying a toy or were unarmed.”
Most of us that watch the evening news saw the shooting of a 12-year-old by a Cleveland policeman. (The civil rights and wrongful death suit accuses the two police officers involved of acting unreasonably, negligently, recklessly, wantonly, willfully, knowingly, intentionally, and with deliberate indifference to the safety and rights to the boy who is named in the document). Here’s a photo of the young boy shot by police
Not too long ago Denver police gunned down a 17 year old girl who was joy-riding in a stolen car. Surely there must have been an alternative to bullets?
Then there was the adult whose name was Eric Garner who was killed by a New York policemen’s choke hold.
Most certainly police brutality is not uncommon across the country. Here’s a recent photo of a sheriff deputy’s eight year-old prisoner
The stories go on but by now the point should be made. Cops can be cruel, sadistic and mindless as the most ruthless of criminals are.
In this regard, I wrote about the Crowe case that occurred a few years back in California: In order to get a confession, a FALSE confession as it turned out, they told a fourteen year old boy, accused of murdering his sister, that his parents thought he was guilty (they didn’t) and that a monster lived within him that came out at night. The boy thought he must be guilty and confessed. He was later venerated and freed because of a conscientious public defender but his hellish experience will stay with him for a lifetime. Incidentally, as it turned out, a homeless guy had committed the terrible crime).
False and coerced confessions are common in our society. This is partially due to the plea bargaining process. I have a friend of mine who did three years in prison for a white-collar crime that he still swears he is innocent of. Nevertheless, federal law enforcement promised him 25 years behind bars if he didn’t admit his guilt. The thought of 25 years convinced him to take the lighter sentence and so he signed his confession and off to jail he went for three years.
As we think over these atrocities committed by law enforcement (and this article does not offer space to name countless others) we have to ask ourselves is the cause of these tragedies flaws in the character of policemen and other law enforcers or are we instead observing flaws in the system itself?
Cops, Crime and Punishment
First of all, society must have law enforcement. If we suddenly took all the cops off the street, brute force would take over immediately and the entire society would fall prey to the thugs of the world. Indeed, while our law enforcement system is imperfect it serves to keep ordinary citizens safe and as secure as possible so daily life can be conducted in as much freedom the law allows. The question that arises, however, readily asks, is the law enforcement and Judiciary systems at the root of at least a lot of criminal behavior and should the “system” be changed?
(While this article does not permit the needed space to do a thorough study of America’s cops, crime and punishment, I will attempt to give what I deem to be highlights of observation and leave the rest to the reader’s imagination).
There are obvious flaws in America’s legal ointment. First of all, we must recognize that breaking the law and committing a criminal act is not necessarily the same thing. Nevertheless, breaking the law in many instances can result in sentences that are ever as long as real criminal acts. I believe it was back in 2013 that a 46 year old man, John Homer, was sentenced to 25 years for selling pain killers. 2013, however, was also somewhat of a positive year for the courts since Justice Clarence Thomas and other justices finally made it harder for judges to impose mandatory sentencing for drug offenders wanting to leave the decision to juries. Nevertheless, in spite of this ruling there still remains too much mandatory sentencing in our courts.
What is wrong with mandatory sentencing begins with the observation that it dehumanizes our judicial system. For example, a person that has committed a (soft) crime such as petty theft to feed his hungry family is not the same as a person who has committed a (soft) crime to make some easy profit. Mandatory sentencing would disallow a (conscientious) judge to discriminate.
The law is not based on conscientiousness however. It is based on budget concerns that depend on arrests, fines and confiscations of people’s property and cash. These motivations ground the ordinary cop in desire to “bring in” as many suspects as possible; to hand out as many tickets as he or she can. (While the police deny this, there are often ticket quotas to assure budget requirements).
In regard to this and to show how absurd this drive for fines and confiscations goes, two little sisters, Andria and Zoey decided to open a lemonade stand in Texas in order to buy their dad a Father’s Day gift. The police shut them down because they hadn’t purchases a $150 permit. This is not an isolated case, the same thing happened in Indianapolis to a ten year old and these kinds of police activities are common across the country. Not too long ago, I read where a little girl built a tree house and was ordered to tear it down because it displeased some arrogant neighbors. Perhaps it’s a health issue you may be thinking, well think about this: The law permits the food industry to relay on its own research and so as Jeffery Reiman tells us, “…the American public is the real guinea pig for nearly 3,000 food additives. As a result, we are subjected to chemicals strongly suspected of producing cancer, gallbladder ailments, hyper kinesis in children, and allergies.” Because the food industry has lobbyists and powerful financial backup they are pretty much left alone by authority but God forbid two little girls wanting to operate a lemonade stand without proper inspection and expensive permits.
The above is just one example of how wealth and big business influence government on both local and national levels. As a result law enforcement agencies are often manipulated by politicians who often make laws to benefit specific businesses and industries while manipulating the average citizen with rules and regulations. The gigantic example of this is well-known: congress, for example, makes law for we the people that do not apply to them. But just how much do financial issues influence the law makers and law enforcers?
One of the most depressing observations is that both the police and the District Attorney’s office count on convictions to secure their budgets and so forth. You will remember that I told you about the boy who was falsely accused of murdering his sister. Well, the truth is that the D.A. hid (or lost) a major piece of evidence, the bloody shirt of the real killer. This was revealed by the defending attorney who (thankfully) uncovered the shirt herself. The question is why the prosecution didn’t seek the truth in a conscientious way instead of tunnel-visioning on a conviction; a conviction that would have ruined a young boy’s life who was merely caught up in the web of politics that shadow the legal system. It simply becomes clear that most district attorneys and their prosecutors lose sight of or even interest in truth and justice and so (truth be damned) winning cases become their drive and determination.
We must address the fact that there was a confession by the boy: Well, the whole ordeal begins with a police detective who didn’t like the boy’s attitude and therefore decided “he was the one that committed the horrible crime.” As a result he set out to prove his own theory as opposed to simply trying to find the truth. When evidence was lacking, he then deprived the boy of sleep while “interviewing” him among other cruelties of interrogation. And when those tactics didn’t work he pulled in a cop from another area who was known to acquire confessions. He gave the boy a lie detector test and then lied to him saying that the test revealed his guilt. After being told by the police that there were “monsters inside of him that came out at night,” he was convinced that he had indeed murdered his own sister. As a result he signed the confession and the cop that secured the (false) signature was given accolades for a fine job. (Once again it is only thanks to a conscientious public defender that the boy’s life was saved and he was at last freed from incarceration).
There is nothing absolutely unique about this story, false and coerced confessions happen all the time across the country while the plea bargain is often used as a coercive tool. And so, without any hesitation whatsoever we can name these techniques, “corrupt.” As it turns out the old adage really does prove true, at least more often than not, that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
This was proven back in 2003 at the Abu Ghraib prison; a facility where Saddam Hussien had dissidents tortured and murdered but later became an American military prison. It was here that members of a M.P. unit became abusive to prisoners beating them with wooden handles and/or chairs, making them pose nude and in vulnerable positions
Abuse of prisoners is not a unique occurrence, however, even in U.S. prisons and jails. Indeed, in 1999 a federal judge made the conclusion that Texas prisons were a “culture of sadistic and malicious violence.” Only four years before this another federal judge observed a staff at Pelican Bay Prison in California using electronic stun guns abusively,, beatings and other brutality against inmates. More recently prisoners across the board prisoners have been beaten by guards ending up with broken jaws, smashed ribs, broken eardrums, missing teeth and so forth. Women prisoners are known to face staff rape and other sexual abuse by correctional officers. This does not mean that every prison guard is coercive and cruel. But it does mean that the corruption of power routinely exists against inmates in a great many prisons. It becomes impossible not to mention that such treatment can only serve to psychologically scar the recipient of such cruel and unusual treatment and inspire greater resentment toward authority and the society at large.
How does this occur?
To answer this question we must go back to 1971 and the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by social psychologist, Philip Zimbardo. In the basement of Stanford he had a mock prison environment constructed, then asked students to volunteer for the experiment. Some of the students would serve as prison guards while others would serve as prisoners. The prison guards would have the same kind of ultimate power over the prisoners as actual guards have over real inmates. Within a very short time the students acting as guards became sadistic and overbearing to the prisoners. In Zimbardo’s book, The Lucifer Effect, Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, he demonstrates clearly how power can so quickly becomes abusive. (Incidentally, none of this is saying that there are no prison employees who are both empathetic and conscientious and not fallen into the trappings of cruelty and hardness. I doubt they are in the majority, however).
This is obviously a serious problem since prisons are not going to go away anytime soon. A new question arises, however. Why is the U.S. the world’s leader in imprisoned people; an obvious irony for a country claiming to be the land of the free. After all, we have more prisons and prisoners per-capita than any other place on the planet including Russia and China. So why is this?
The answer clearly is money (call it profit). We not only have an abundance of federal and state prisons in the country but also private prisons where profit is the only motivation. The more beds filled the more profit is made. Here’s a photograph of one overcrowded lockup.
In some towns the major portion of the local economy depends on the prison population of staff, guards and officials. Many big businesses such as soap, candy companies and others make fortunes supplying prisons and jails with their products. Telephone companies actually compete for prison contracts. In this light, what is absolutely for certain is that our prisons nor their system are not at all about rehabilitation. That myth needs to be left by the wayside by anyone who believes differently.
And finally, truth be told, a great many inmates should NOT be in prisons at all. One statistic says around 300,000 inmates are known to have deeply rooted psychological problems, needing treatment and medical care as opposed to being locked behind bars. Most certainly pot smokers and other users make up a good portion of America’s inmates. The state of Colorado *has proven that legalized pot is simply a recreational tool that pays massive taxes to the state and is probably far less harmful than booze. And, most people these days are aware of its medicinal value.
One problem with simply **legalizing marijuana and creating a more lenient ruling for most other drugs is that a great many prison beds would suddenly be emptied and there would be prison layoffs and other financial ramifications would occur.
We must be careful. However, before we lay the blame for unjust practices of the country’s judiciary and legal system. It becomes vital to realize that the law makers and entire legal system is a reflection of the society itself, so we need to take a look in the social mirror before placing all the blame on the cops and other legal authority.
*I tried pot back in the 60s and didn’t like it but, at the same time, I defend the right of anyone wanting to use to be able to as part of their individual pursuit of happiness.
**The so-call war on drugs and drug dealers could be put to bed at anytime and authority knows this. That is, in this regard, the prohibition laws of the 1920s created the wealthiest and most powerful; populations of criminals the country had ever known. When prohibition was lifted, the gangsters virtually went away just as the cartels and dope dealers would if the ban on drugs were lifted. Why has this never happened? What needs to be realized is that drugs are their own world economy and again, drugs keep prison beds filled. (Those especially at the top of the prison industry do not like empty beds).
Crime, Punishment and the American Society
What cannot be overlooked is that many of our prisons also have populations of violent inmates. Especially in higher security prisons, guards are in constant danger and their work is high risk. Nevertheless, only approximately half the inmate population of state, federal and private prisons have committed serious crimes. Again, it needs be remembered that there can be a far and wide distance between breaking the law and committing a criminal act. And while there is no longer a debtor’s prison some residents of some states can still be incarcerated for debt. This has been happening since 2014. Indeed, the Vera Institute of Justice reported this year (2015) that the jails in the U.S.A. have become warehouses for the poor, for those suffering from mental illness and whoever else is unable to post bail. As a result most incarcerated folks are non-violent with many being simply pathetic human beings caught up in a cruel, compassion-less “justice” system.
I have most recently read some of the work by sociologist Emile Durkheim and while I am opposed to most of his theories, I do agree with him in so much as to say that the ordinary population (the average Joe and Jane) are revengeful when it comes to criminal acts and many still hold to the belief that “anyone in jail or prison must have done something to deserve it.”
Well, in that calloused view, the justice department tells us that most everyone has broken some law in their lives that could have imprisoned them. In fact, there are so many laws that if some state or federal bureaucrat decided they didn’t like you, they could have you in legal problems up to your ears by merely making a few phone calls. After all, while we do not have a dictator in our country, the law can and often does serve in that capacity. (Read James Bovard).
A major challenge is that we need to catch up to the times. Our prisons remain mere extensions of Dark Age dungeons where torture and torments prevail. While we no longer place people on the rack
Today we know that most of us are either victims or victors of our childhoods. We understand that we are subject to our early indoctrinations and so forth. In other words, we are aware of deeply seated psychological problems that, in many instances, can be cured by treatment. And so, we need to reestablish hospitals and safe environments for a large count of people now in unhealthy and for some, terrifying prison environments. Some years ago I knew a young man who was sentenced for possessing marijuana and was raped and beaten while, he said, guards stood by laughing at his howls.
We are not talking about easy to solve problems here. First of all we must, as a society and social system, actually begin to fight poverty. (The so-called war on poverty, at best has been more hoax, call it propaganda, than anything else). And regardless of those many that say poverty does not create crime but criminals do, the truth is that poverty does create crime. Sociology 101 can verify this!
It is difficult to accept that poverty is so rampant in the U.S. but the New York Times tells us that one in six Americans live below the poverty line.
In our judiciary it is no secret that there is prejudice against the poor. Most certainly if a poor person commits a crime he or she will receive a greater or harsher sentence than a middle class or wealthy person will for committing the same crime. And, a black person is more apt to go to prison than a white person is. It simply isn’t farfetched when it is said that the rich get richer and the poor get prison.
It’s interesting to me that while we have such a large population of impoverished people that, at the same time, we have more billionaires than any other country has. But obviously the gap between rich and poor is widening in the U.S. Around 10% have about the same spending power that the other 90% have. In short, there is clearly an inadequate distribution of wealth in the country. This is not to say that the wealth should be equally shared, only that it should be at least fairly shared. For example, the distance between what an executive earns and what a worker earns is simply too wide. Oh yes, it is also interesting to me that while U.S. hunger is growing, according to a World News report, the industry fostering the most new billionaires arrive from the food and beverage industry. Is that an irony…or what?
In the meantime, government keeps growing further and further away from the people. While it has never really been “by, for and of the people” with the exception, perhaps, of being in Abe Lincolns heart, it has now become far more self-serving than other-serving. In fact, it can be said that we no longer have a republican party or a democratic party but rather only a government party. The rest is hype and hyperbole. Most Americans know this down deep in their souls. And indeed, this is why Obama was able to win the White House…he ran on the promise of change and that’s what most of us want for our own country and for the world.
Changes: Possibilities and Potential
Dostoyevsky told us that, "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons." All prisons are obsolete including our U.S. prisons and their systems. They do not and have never worked to rehabilitate or create positive change in the lives of the incarcerated. In fact, just the opposite in most instances! We are still murdering people for murdering people. The death penalty must go. It is a barbaric practice that has never deterred crime, not even when all executions were public. And yes, I am well aware that there are some criminal acts that are absolutely horrifying. Nevertheless, we must also realize that such crimes are accompanied by deeply rooted mental problems and mental problems are typically deepened and made more severe by punishment. Indeed, most hardened criminals grew up with severe punishments of one kind or another; neglect, beatings (worse) and in unloving environments
To eliminate as much criminal behavior as possible, we must start with the children and the home environment; we need to renovate the ghettos and barrios
One way of doing this is to permit police officers more freedom of discrimination by being able to pay at least equal attention to the purpose of the law as they do to the letter of the law. The letter of the law has no empathy, tolerance or understanding. We also need to reinstate the power of discrimination to judges; to be able to show compassion when compassion is justified.
We also need to reopen our state institutions and stop putting our mentally ill in prison. We must do more research on the aspects of how (brutal) crime can be physiologic at root cause.
We must absolutely stop imprisoning people for victimless crimes.
We must release all those now incarcerated for victimless crimes.
Instead of hindering the released felon by taking away his rights, his possible eligibility for aide, housing, education and making it more difficult to find work, especially good jobs—we should work toward opening more doors of opportunity for him or her. This should at least apply to first time offenders of non-violent crimes, after time served, ex-cons should be freed from the system altogether and thus given a “real” chance of making positive change in their lives. In fact, one reason for serving time is to pay one’s dept to society. As it is today, “a felon” is never allowed to fully pay off that dept as his or her punishment continues after release and for the rest of his life. As things are now, he or she is condemned to be the felon forever. No doubt a reason why the recidivism rate is so high!
Granted, at this time in our history, we cannot create an alternative to caging the violent criminal or those who usurp individual freedom through criminal acts. The thief, after all, not only steals the victim’s property but the victim’s freedom as well.
Part of America’s freedom is to be free from fear of criminals and other tyrants so law enforcement and yes, prisons often serve to assure this freedom for the average citizen. Nevertheless every community needs to make a greater effort to be supportive of the lowest echelon, helping the poorer, less fortunate social sector rise above their status through brotherly love and conscientious human action. This is not to advocate handouts but rather giving hands up to those in need. So again, we simply must stop the “us and them” reality that most people live in. Indeed, there is only “us” and the idea of “them” is merely a historic, habitual view passed down from one generation to the next by parents and other authority in our lives. Sexism, racism and “culturalism” are all results of the “us” and “them” mentality. In fact, all wars and so man’s inhumanity to man are the result of this mentality…and have been since the advent of civilization.
There are two statements I believe are obviously mindless: “My country right or wrong” and “My country, love it or leave it.” A real patriot wants his country to be “right” and, if you will, to be righteous.
The world has changed since the turn of the 20th century when we gave up our isolationism and became universal in our interests. This officially began in 1907 when President Teddy Roosevelt
This changed the very heartbeat of the U.S., the very soul of the most unique country on the planet; unique because it cherished individual freedom (or claimed to). Over the years Congress began passing laws upon laws upon laws. Laws restrict and confine, they take away freedoms and this should change. Congress should be questioning what will give the people back their human volition, what will give them the American spirit of individuality, independence and progress? I repeat, this nation boasting freedom has more prisons than any other country and houses more prisoners per capita than any other country. The paradox is mind boggling.
When we think of good-Americanism our thoughts return to the home front: Conscientious caring for the home, the neighborhood, the state and the nation. Being good Americans we want to see Dr. King’s “dream” comes true, we want to live in a place where equality for all prevails. This is being true to the ethics of our heritage.
We also want to live in a country that lives up to its ideals. The most important of which was stated by Franklin Roosevelt
He went on to give us his four freedoms for the world:
The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants— everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.
The operative words are anywhere in the world. In too many instances we have forgotten, as a nation, these humanistic motives and, sadly enough in many ways, we have become a bully nation.This is no secret and has been observed worldwide. What this means is that we too often forget the very essence of what made America great. It was individual freedom and that wonderful right to simply pursue one’s own happiness. But also, in principle, it was being a compassionate, tolerant society; a melting pot of nationalities, colors and creeds.
While as a people we have often failed at these virtues, these virtues have nevertheless remained at the core of our basic ideals, the reasons given us by the framers of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. However, as someone once said, The Constitution is only what the judges say it is. In short, our laws have been made to suit and serve government as opposed to serving the people whose interest(s) government is supposed to be representing. This needs to begin with government caring more about the individual than the corporations, conglomerates and other big business who lobby for rule. Jeffrey Reiman lists some of the big companies involved in financial scandal. The list includes Enron. Most of us who remember Enron will also recall the following companies caught up in dishonest representations like Xerox, AOL-Time Warner, MicroStrategy, K-Mart, Citigroup and Morgan Chas (Banks that helped cover up their corporate clients’ debt. There have been such as Halliburton Oil, Waste Management and the Lincoln Savings and Loan scandals. The list goes on not excluding Wall Street itself in more recent times. And although some of the executives were arrested under the Sarbanes-Odey Act, However the point for this article is that if individuals did what these mighty companies did, they would be serving years of their lives in prison. One way of correcting this paradox, however, is to strive to change the ways of capitalism itself. That is, to abandon self-centered capitalism, as capitalism as grown to be, and develop Compassionate Capitalism which protects everyone equally and fairness to all prevails as a way of business. In short, the win/win contractual agreement in sales and deal making.
At least in intent we were a country of fair play. That is, we believed in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay…in good neighbor policies…in gumption and honesty. Sure these were ideals and the realities were far from being so honorable but we need to at last live up to our ideals (worldwide) or shut up about them. That’s the bottom line.
What we want, however, as a people is to stand proud and true amidst a world of mean corruption; to actually become the guiding light as we so often dare think of ourselves.
There is one way we can accomplish this goal. It begins by grasping that the cops, good, bad and ugly, are us…that the politicians honest and crooked are us…that the bureaucrats that we so detest are us and the law makers as well. And what this is getting at is that we need to stop blaming “them” and become responsible for it all ourselves. After all, “they” are mere extensions of us. So this change must begin by how we treat one another in our homes, how we treat our neighbors, how we respect the freedom of others and how much we deny our sexism and racism; how we live and let live and how honestly and conscientiously we conduct ourselves in our communities. And finally, how much love and wisdom we give our kids, those that will become the next generation of cops, politicians, bureaucrats, business leaders and so forth. That’s right we need to stop blaming them because they are only us in different circumstances. Remember, as Emma Goldman said, a society is only a collection of individual and this, being true, also means that how each of us conduct our lives is reflected in the whole.
And finally, in view of it all, if we are to lead the world we must be more than the might of a strong military, we must serve as a strong example of honesty, compassion and (real) freedom; we must place economics in second place to our humanity and therefore our will toward peace and a better, happier world for all.
References and Suggested Further Reading
Currie, Elliot * Crime and Punishment in America * (1998) Henry Holt and Company
Booth, Demico * Why Are So Many Black Men In Prison * (2007) Surface Publishing
Dyer, Joel * The Perpetual Prisoner Machine * (2000) Westview Press
Garland, David * Punishment and Modern Society * (1990) The University of Chicago Press
Marc Mauer and Meda Chesney-Lind (Eds) The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment * (2002) The NewPress
Reiman, Jeffery * The Rich Get Rich and The Poor Get Prison * (1979-2004) Pearson Philip, Zimbardo * The Lucifer Effect *(2007) Random House Trade Paperbacks
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