iPhones Cause Police Brutality

It’s official. Cell phones make police misbehave. Incredible how that works. Just start shooting video and there they are, beating people to death, sitting on their chests until they suffocate, even gunning them down.

It’s like bad magic.

Just kidding. Except I’m really not. Because there is nothing funny about any of this. The sad truth is that police have been getting away with this behavior forever, but until the advent of cell phones, making virtually everyone a potential on the scene TV reporter, nobody believed it.

If you simply Google “Police Brutality Caught on Tape” you will find endless examples of cops misbehaving. It’s incredible. At least for most people. It is not slightly incredible to me. For over thirty years, client after client after client has sat across from me, detailing how they were manhandled while being arrested.

Don’t get me wrong; some of them probably deserved it. I mean when you are screaming threats at an armed officer you gotta expect it might go a bit sideways eventually.

But the constantly recurring themes were more along the lines of “There I was, in handcuffs, totally complying with every order, but as they put me in the patrol car they grabbed my head and bounced it off the top of the door.” If I had a dime for every time I heard that I’d be retired by now.

The first real example that went “viral”, before anyone used that term, was Rodney King.

That was the first time most Americans actually saw first hand what can happen during an arrest. But, even then, especially then in fact, it was happening every day. I know. I was deep in the trenches working as a public defender back then, listening to my clients tell me stories every day about being beaten, having their homes ransacked, being pulled over because of the color of their skin.

I actually feel guilty about that. I did not do enough to try to stop it. Believe me, I tried. I would vehemently argue to prosecutors, judges and juries whenever I could that something had happened that violated proper legal procedures and try to get my clients some relief. But, guess what?

The prosecutors rolled their eyes and snorted, with a sort of “Tell it to the Marines” attitude. Judges ruled against us in suppression hearings. Jurors convicted, occasionally taking me to task out in the hallway after trial for daring to criticize our saviors in blue uniforms.

Of course these same jurors swore up and down during jury selection that they would never simply take the word of a cop because they were a cop. Nooooo. They would apply the same standard to everyone, zealously presuming my client innocent and forcing the state to prove their cases beyond a reasonable doubt. Yeah, right. In fact they did what my mom used to say she would do if ever on a jury: Tell that defense attorney just how fair and impartial they were going to be and then head back in the jury room and convict the guy. At least Mom was honest.

And that is the thing. Police brutality and misbehavior does not start and end out there on the streets. No. It starts the day they enter the academy and persists right through their gloating after testifying in court, knowing that they are leaving stuff out or intentionally misleading jurors to get a conviction. It is too bad we can’t video tape that kind of thing and show it to everyone. Maybe then people would believe me.

I’m not imagining things. No more than I was imagining that cops beat people up for no reason before it was all over YouTube for everyone to see. I have endless examples that I witnessed first hand over the years. I once had a detective sitting across from me when I was a prosecutor as we prepared for a suppression hearing. The defense was arguing that my cop had lied in his report about whether he advised the defendant of his rights. I asked the detective what actually happened.

He shrugged, smiled and said, “Don’t you worry about what happened. Just tell me what you want me to say.”

I dismissed the case, which did not go over well.

As a PD I once persuaded a judge to toss a case out because of an illegal search, but not before I had to ream the lead detective on the witness stand for lying in his report, which was so obvious that even the judge was forced to rule in my favor. On the way out of court the detective pulled me aside, almost laughing, and said “Well, you caught us this time but next time we will be ready for you.” Next time? Excuse me?

There are cases where it appears detectives and prosecutors got together to collude to hide exculpatory evidence. It is called a Brady violation. Brady stands for the proposition that if the government knows about evidence that might help the defense, called exculpatory evidence, then they MUST give it to the defense. No if’s, and’s, or’s or but’s. No exceptions. But when a client has the wherewithal to file request after request for documents from prison, after being convicted without that Brady material being disclosed, he then uncovers the helpful evidence. By then it might be too late. Every one of these things actually happened.

Which brings me to my point. It is really a shame that it took millions of people with miniature video cameras in their pockets before people actually began believing that cops can get out of line. But it is about much more than beating people up for no good reason. It is about corruption, perjury, and obtaining convictions at all costs, the rule of law be damned. It makes me angry. And sad. Sad that it will continue until people get wise to the way things really work out there. Until they learn that you have to look at every case critically with a fair and open mind. Including the way you look at the testimony of both sides. Not just the defense.

One last point. There are tons of honest and true prosecutors and law enforcement officers. The vast majority in fact. However, they should be the first to stand up and condemn the types of things I am describing. If they are not part of the solution they become part of the problem, and that becomes a problem for every American, law abiding innocent people and guilty criminals alike. It is what this country was founded on and what makes us great. A fair and impartial criminal justice system where everyone is expected to play by the rules.


Originally published at www.seattlecriminallawyerblog.com on April 9, 2015.