The Police Are Not Your Friend

Police Brutality in America

You’re face down on the pavement with one guy kneeling on your neck and the other kicking you with his steel toed boots. You wish somebody would call the cops, but what do you do if it’s the cops that are kicking you? An increasing number of Americans are becoming aware of the extent of police brutality and misconduct, but they don’t know what to do about it.

Billy Rork, a criminal defense attorney in Topeka, KS for more than 30 years is fond of saying, “The police are not your friends unless you’re six years old and lost.” It’s even on his business card. Given the events of the last decade, it’s hard to argue against his sentiment. While police brutality has been an issue the entirety of my lifetime, it’s progressed to a frightening level.

The most famous recent incident of police brutality was the case of Oscar Grant, 22, who was shot in the back by BART Transit Officer Johannes Mehserle as he lay face down, handcuffed and restrained by a second transit cop. The incident was captured by at least four onlookers using cell phone video cameras.

It’s difficult to argue that this was anything other than a cold-blooded, extrajudicial execution carried out in front of dozens of witnesses. Mehserle was found guilty, but sentenced to only two years in prison and granted double credit for the 146 days already served. The trial was moved to Los Angeles for fear that Mehserle wouldn’t be able to get a fair trial in Oakland. The jury consisted of seven whites, four Latinos and one Asian. Oscar Grant was black.

It’s unlikely that convicting Mehserle would have been possible without the four videos taken by onlookers with their cell phones. You’d think that states would be grateful, even anxious, to secure evidence which allows them to cull the bad apples from the ranks of the police, but you would be mistaken. At least you would be wrong in Illinois, Massachusetts and Maryland, where authorities work to enforce “consent for recording laws” to prevent people from filming public servants in public places.

Twelve states have laws stating all parties must agree to being filmed, except in public places where they have no reasonable expectation of privacy. However Illinois, Massachusetts and Maryland have chosen to press the issue in court by insisting their police officers never consented to being filmed. Public servants paid with public money on public property beating people they are sworn to defend is construed by those states to be privileged content subject to consent.

The constitutionality of this interpretation of the law will surely be challenged, and a ruling in favor could lead to widespread unintended consequences. The first and most obvious is the dashboard camera in police cruisers. I can tell you I have never once consented to be filmed by one of those, and certainly there are attorneys out there just waiting to file that lawsuit.

However it goes far beyond that. What about security cameras able to view people off their own premises? Once you enter a property your expectation of privacy diminishes to zero, but what about people across the street? Would a criminal defendant be able to claim that he never gave his consent to be filmed, therefore any video from that camera should be deemed inadmissible as evidence? What about cameras at stop lights, public malls or parks? If we don’t have the right to film public employees performing their public duties, do they have the right to film us?

There are dozens of websites such as Cop Block and Injustice Everywhere documenting police brutality and other criminal activities. Thinking back, I knew half a dozen guys who went on to become police officers, and while we always figured they would be part of the system, we expected it to be on the other side. We figured that Police Academy psychological testing would have ruled these guys out, but it appears that they are exactly what the police department wants, and therein lies the problem.

It’s always dangerous to invest that much authority in anyone, but someone with questionable character or mental stability is almost guaranteed to abuse that power. Making matters worse, citizen review boards resulting from the abuses in the 60s and 70s have been disbanded, and today police officials serve as judge and jury in abuse of power complaints, except in criminal cases. The blue wall is real, and rarely do cops pay for their wrongdoing, even in criminal court.

Every year in grade school we’d have a community outreach officer visit our classroom, and the message was always the same: If you’re not doing anything wrong, then you don’t have anything to worry about. Indoctrination starts young, and I still hear people in their 50s, 60s and 70s reciting that corrupt piece of logic despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary. However, if it holds true then I would say to any police who might be reading, “Officer, if you’re not doing anything wrong, then you don’t need to worry about people that are filming your actions.”

And therein lies the problem, because I think they understand they’re doing a lot wrong, and that’s why they want the cameras turned off. However they shouldn’t be too concerned, because BART Transit Officer Johannes Mehserle shot a man in cold blood on camera, in front of scores of witnesses, and the jury only gave him two years. Anyone of us would have gone away for 20 to life.

It’s a sweet gig if you can get it.



Larry Wohlgemuth was raised during the tumultuous 60s in the midst of sometimes violent civil rights and antiwar protests. After a stint in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, he earned a BBA degree from Washburn University. Wohlgemuth leans so far to the left he prefers to be called “Comrade”, and his book, “Capitalism’s Final Solution” is planned to be released in the spring, 2011. Larry is a contributor to Prose Before Hos and runs his own blog, It Begs the Question.


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