Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Officer Corruption?

The last few days, the NY Times Metro section has started to read like a rap sheet for New York City police officers. First came the story of the police commander who pepper-sprayed protestors during the opening days of the Occupy Wall Street protests. Then, we learned about the police officer who was charged with violating the civil rights of an African American man whom he falsely accused of resisting arrest. And finally, today's section featured the story of a police officer convicted of plotting to burglarize an individual's apartment because the officer believed that the apartment was used as a safe house to stash a drug dealer's wad of cash.

Besides the concern that instances of New York city policy officers exceeding the bounds of their authority are proliferating, each of the arrests/convictions that have made the news this week shed some insight into the hierarchy of violations that police officers can unfortunately commit in the course of their duties. At the bottom of the ladder are violations that result in internal discipline but are generally not considered to break the law. It's unclear whether pepper-spraying a group of women who were already penned in arises to a violation of state criminal laws (e.g., assault) since the Manhattan district attorney is still investigating the incident, but the police force has already determined that the pepper-spraying commander's actions violated internal police policy and docked the officer 10 days of vacation. In other words, thus far, the police officer's actions exceeded the bounds of his authority set forth in the police department's officer manuals but did not violate any state or federal laws.

By contrast, the police officer who came up with a convoluted plan to break into someone's home, incapacitate him with a stun gun and then steal $900,000 in cash that he believed was hidden under the floor boards, not only wins more points for stupidity but also broke the law. Whereas the pepper-spraying commander only crossed the bounds of police department policies, the actions of the officer looking to get rich quick clearly rose to the level of breaking New York State criminal laws (in addition to internal police department policy).

Finally, we come to the case of the white police officer who allegedly falsely accused an African American individual of resisting arrest. In the hierarchy of abuse of a police officer's authority, this incident claims the top rung. Not only did the officer take away someone's liberty by arresting him and having him detained for 36 hours without probable cause, he did so with clear animus and bias towards the individual's racial and ethnic background. If the allegations are proven true, then this police officer has violated the police department's internal policies, state criminal law (extortion, making a death threat) and federal law for violating an individual's civil rights while acting under the color of state law. Acting under the color of state law means that the officer violated the individual's civil rights by arresting him under false pretenses while serving as an official representative of New York State.

What makes this last incident so egregious is that the police officer took full advantage of his position of authority to prey on his victim and to detain him without cause based on his racial classification. It also is particularly worrisome because a violation of civil rights - as opposed to a hair-brained scheme to burglarize someone's apartment - is often emblematic of a decaying culture within a department, one that gives police officers a prejudiced outlook on the society they are asked to oversee and that is supported by official department policies. The pepper-spraying incident was resolved through an internal discipline process that will help to deter similar violations from occurring again. Since department policy is often at the root of a civil rights violation however, internal discipline and existing department policies are generally insufficient to remedy the issue and prevent recurrences. Several New York State legislators have indeed requested a federal investigation into the New York City police department's stop, question and frisk policy for precisely this reason. It appears that such an investigation may now be worth undertaking.

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