T. Greg Doucette on false arrest and police brutality

This post is not from me, but is a remarkable rant from T. Greg Doucette, an attorney in Durham, NC, who took to Twitter to share his experiences defending a young client from charges of reckless driving to endanger, a serious crime in North Carolina. (Greg, if you’re not okay with me collecting these here, let me know and I will take it down.)

I’m sharing it because, as the child of a legal aid defense attorney, I remember growing up with loads of stories like this, and having these stories shape my understanding about law enforcement, criminal justice and power. My father used to frequent courtrooms and offer to defend people facing charges without counsel precisely because stories like this are extremely common.

A couple of things. Greg mentions that this situation is wrong whether you’re Republican, Democrat or undecided, but you may be assuming that he’s a Dem. He’s not — he’s a Republican and a libertarian, and is running for state senate as a Republican.

You may also assume that he’s African American. He’s a white dude, who happened to go to a historically black law school and who runs a law firm with two female lawyers of color. And while he’s getting lots of Twitter love today, he points out that he’s been blogging about these issues for a long time — see this post on prosecuting abusive prosecutors where he features a friend he went to NC State with.

But while Greg’s an interesting figure, what’s important about his rant — IMHO — is that he doesn’t address this as a case of a rogue cop potentially ruining a young man’s life. He sees this as a systemic problem, and as a form of police brutality. Greg’s take may focus on this as a manifestation of a greedy and out-of-control state (he is a libertarian, after all), but he’s absolutely right to point out that when court systems are forced to become partially or entirely self-financing, there’s a strong pressure to increase prosecutions, even when those prosecutions are entirely bogus. Even if Greg’s rant ends up somehow leading to the arresting officer being sanctioned or otherwise punished, the problem he identifies is a systemic one — set up a system where courts need to prosecute people to survive and they will prosecute a lot of people.

I was especially struck by Greg’s identification of this arrest as a form of brutality. It’s a form that’s hard for most white people to see — this young man wasn’t beaten up, wasn’t imprisoned, wasn’t shot. But he was terrified. And his encounters with law enforcement going forward will be colored by the knowledge that power can and will be exercised arbitrarily based on his status as a young black male.

When we look at questions like whether predictive policing is fair and ethical, we need to understand that not all encounters between citizens and police are handled in the most ethical and professional manner we’d like to see. Populations that have grown up with a long tradition of being harassed and brutalized by police are understandably concerned about strategies that identify “hot spots” and promise additional “attention” to those areas, which often turn out to be communities of color.

In watching debates about policing after Ferguson, it’s hard not to be struck by the importance that imagery can have in disputes between police and citizens. Without his mother’s photographs, Greg’s client would likely have been convicted based on the officer’s testimony. Without Feidin Santana’s video, we would never have known that Walter Scott was murdered by officer Michael Slager. And so it makes sense that activists — and the President — would push for officer-worn body cameras.

But imagery alone doesn’t change flawed systems — the video of Eric Garner choking to death wasn’t enough to indict the officers who arrested him in Staten Island. Greg Doucette’s story points to the fact that problems with criminal justice in the US are problems of structural injustice and racism, that a system where power is not held accountable will veer towards abuse and where financial incentives to prosecute crimes leads to unjustifiable prosecution. Props to Greg for identifying this as a structural problem and looking for ways to fix it, and to all defense attorneys who work hard, with little recognition, to fight for the rights of their clients in a system that is often biased against them.

Originally published at … My heart’s in Accra.

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