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January 12, 2012

Losing Faith: 1960's Alabama and Relative Perniciousness

Relativity is tricky, in both physics and ethics. Sometimes it's pretty clear that two things are both "bad", but it's hard to say which is worse, to quantify or evaluate relative perniciousness.

In a recent incident, an Allegheny County police officer says he stopped at a congested intersection. There were two Township policemen and a Township Councilman. The County Cop says that when he asked them about the intersection, one Township cop punched the County cop in the throat and knocked him down, then the two Township cops filed affadavits and charged the County cop with criminal charges. The charges were without merit and were dismissed. The County cop is now suing.

Here's a question: Which was worse:
  1. the Township cop assaulting the County cop, or
  2. the two Township cops filing false statements, charging a crime that didn't exist, and attempting to put the County cop in jail?
The assault is a one-time violent wrong, which if survived will diminish over time; the perjury, conspiracy, and false imprisonment will have life-long effects if successful.

Here's an observation: the perjury, conspiracy, and false imprisonment of the County Cop didn't succeed, but the "justice system" did not follow through; there was no accountability for the two Township cops - who, if the County cop is right, committed crimes of their own. The criminal justice system did not deal with the false reports and fake charges; the victim had to resort to a civil lawsuit to try to right the wrong. And this is a policeman.

I believe in our system and our society. More to the point, I want to believe in our system and our society. (Because in the end, it's all about me.) And so I think, ok that's just one event. Aberrations happen. It's the exception that shows how good things are, most of the time. I want to believe that. All my inclinations make me want to believe.

Increasingly, I'm having trouble believing that there's just one problem every few years.

For instance, from the Post-Gazette's Sadie Gurman, Nov 13 2010:
The Allegheny County district attorney's office said it will review dozens of criminal cases involving a pair of Pittsburgh police officers charged Friday with framing two men in what prosecutors called a wrongful drug arrest.

Officers Kenneth Simon, 49, and Anthony Scarpine, 58, were put on paid leave and could face termination in light of the charges against them, which include conspiracy, official oppression, unsworn falsification and obstruction. Officer Simon also was charged with felony perjury and is accused of stealing more than $800 from the pockets of one of the men he and Officer Scarpine arrested.

The charges were the result of a months-long probe by the district attorney's office into the July 7 arrests of Tim Joyce, 22, and David Carpenter, 38, at a North Side car wash. Numerous drug offenses against the men were filed -- and later withdrawn -- after the officers wrote in sworn accounts that they witnessed a hand-to-hand cocaine transaction that the district attorney's office said did not take place.

Surveillance footage from the car wash, in the 2900 block of Stayton Street, "does not depict any contact whatsoever" between either suspect and shows Officer Simon taking a wad of what appeared to be cash from Mr. Joyce's pocket
, prosecutors wrote in a criminal complaint.
Charges against the police officers were dismissed.

Sure, maybe there's more than one bad cop out there; it's not all of them, just some. And I'd like to think that the rest of the criminal justice system protects us from those few bad apples. Because the really bad stuff, that all happened in Alabama in the 1960's. Not in these modern times, not in Pennsylvania. Couldn't happen here/now.

From Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, we have this:
The "Kids for cash" scandal unfolded in 2008 over judicial kickbacks at the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Two judges, President Judge Mark Ciavarella and Senior Judge Michael Conahan, were accused of accepting money from Robert Mericle builder of two private, for-profit juvenile facilities, in return for contracting with the facilities and imposing harsh sentences on juveniles brought before their courts in order to ensure that the detention centers would be utilized.

Two interesting sidebars to mention:
  • Is this what happens when you privatize government functions (such as prison) - maybe when you run government like a business, justice goes away and you get business-like results?
  • None of this is trivial when one of the possible outcomes of our criminal justice system is execution.

How did these Luzerne County kids end up? How did the false imprisonment change them, their view of society, their view of justice? As a parent, what do you do when the Cops, the Judge, and the Prosecutor falsely imprison your child, and your kid gets raped in jail, joins a gang, and comes out a different person? Does anybody believe that expunging their criminal record makes them whole?

Which brings me, inexorably, to Jordan Miles. Jordan Miles (the violin-playing honor student at the magnet school) was beaten, tased, and had the hair ripped out of his scalp by three Pittsburgh policemen. The policemen submitted affadavits and charged Jordan Miles with crimes.

Fortunately, Jordan Miles had family and a clean record. If he'd had a marijuanna bust a few years prior and if English wasn't the primary language in his house, it all would have gone differently. But his family supported him, his community supported him, and the charges were dropped.

The more I think about it, the beating and scalping weren't the worst things those cops did to Jordan Miles; the attempt to falsely imprison him looms much larger. And if he didn't have a clean record and family support, it would have happened.

The more pernicious crime may be the filing of false statements, the conspiracy of the official report, and the attempt to deprive Jordan Miles of his liberty, to label an innocent man a criminal, and to (in fact) make him into a different person by sending him to prison for a few years.

I want to believe in our system, I really do. But when I look at the conspiracy to falsely imprison Jordan Miles; when I look at the fabrication of a story about Tim Joyce and David Carpenter, and again with Officer Ray Hrabos; when I look at the police escorting Big Ben in Georgia; and when I look at Luzerne County, I think: don't be naive, don't be a sucker.

And in each of these cases, the criminal justice system didn't self-correct; Ray Hrabos and Jordan Miles are seeking justice in civil court.

And when these incidents are left unchallenged, when the wrongs are not made right, our entire system is degraded and the people lose faith. And so the damage done by these perjuries, conspiracies, and false imprisonment accrues to both the instant victim and to our society at large. This hurts everybody.

And finally, I need to say: this is not most police, who are good, caring people. I would go further and acknowledge that most of those good police are prisoners of the system too. I understand why Alexis Madrigal expresses empathy for John Pike of UC-Davis. Peter Moskos attributes a lot of this to flawed training and places the blame on police departments, not police officers. James Baldwin recognized that notorious Alabama Sheriff Jim Clark was merely the endpoint of a system that shaped the sheriff just as it shaped the people the sheriff attacked.

The understanding that most police are not the problem does not mitigate the issue; as Allegheny County police officer Ray Hrabos said about his experience, "Wrong is wrong, and this needs to be righted".

Every complaint needs to offer a recommendation or else it's just whining; the recommendation is, We need to treat false reports and false charges (not wrong charges) as pernicious crimes against both the individual and society.



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