January 4, 2003

Tales from the Emerging Police State

A family driving through North Carolina, stopped by cops because someone with a cell phone called when they saw a wallet fly from the passing car.

"It was the most traumatic experience the Smoak family of North Carolina has ever had," writes Mary Jo Denton in The Herald Citizen (See also the follow-up), "and it happened yesterday afternoon as they traveled through Cookeville on their way home from a vacation in Nashville. Before their ordeal was over, three members of the family had been yanked out of their car and handcuffed on the side of Interstate 40 in downtown Cookeville, and their beloved dog, Patton, had been shot to death by a police officer as they watched."

January 4, 2003

Summary Executions on the Streets of New York

Giuliani is gone from the mayor's mansion, thank God, but his spirit lives on in the streets of New York. Police killed four people in the first days of the new year. (See The New York Times: 2 Dead After Firing at Officers, Police Say, Police Kill 2 Men, a Day After Fatally Shooting 2 Others and Commissioner Calls 3 of 4 Recent Police Shootings Justified.)

Of course if police are fired upon, they are justified in defending themselves. But when Giuliani was mayor, many police killings took place that were clearly not self defense, often shootings of unarmed people, sometimes people who had committed no crime and of whom police had little reason for suspicion. Giuliani's implicit message in his behavior and attitude after each death was that the police are justified in shooting as a routine part of their duties, even when less extreme measures could have sufficed to enforce the law.

Of course a mayor must stand behind his law enforcement team, but Giuliani's message was that these men will be protected from accountability whether or not the killing was justified or necessary to enforce the law. The message should be that all citizens stand equally before the law, even police and politicians.

Police have prerogatives the ordinary citizen does not because of their duty to keep the peace and uphold the law, but they also have limits. They can't just kill anyone who may have committed a crime. As the leader of the people of the city, Giuliani's message in the wake of a tragic killing should have been: this death is a tragedy and our sympathies go to the family of the deceased. Our police officers are sworn to uphold the law and if they have overstepped their boundaries, they will be held accountable.

When the law is held as supreme and no man is above it, justice will be a bond that will knit the society together, make everyone a participant. When the lines are clearly drawn, people know that if they stand on the right side of the law, they will be allowed the freedom to live their lives in peace. Giuliani, on the hand, set up an atmosphere of us-against-you. If you are Black or Hispanic and in a place we deem to be the wrong place, doing something we consider suspicious, we can shoot you and it's just your tough luck.

On days when a tragic killing of an innocent young man took place, Giuliani would appear on the evening news at some routine political function yukking it up in some stupid hat, rather than addressing the tragedy with the appropriate gravity. He would jump to slander the dead in what he no doubt saw as a defense of the police. But by creating a sense of lawless authority and us-against-them, he put his police in more danger. If young men believe, rationally, that they can be killed for nothing, what is their motivation for cooperating with police? Would they not be more inclined to shoot to defend themselves? It generated a very bad situation.

Bloomberg is no Giuliani, thank God, but let's hope this rash of killings is an anomaly that passes. Bloomberg is a civilized man, at least. Giuliani was a feral political animal whose vision as mayor rarely rose beyond his previous role as a prosecutor who lost most of his cases, but used the position to gain publicity for his upward climb in politics. And he still wants to be president, so look out.

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