A friend and I were attacked last Saturday night around 11 p.m. We were both man-handled and slammed against the trunk of a car. I was pinned to the car by a stranglehold, and my arm was gashed to the point of requiring stitches.
The perpetrators? Two members of the Minneapolis police force.
Our crime? Asking a question.
Jef Stout, managing editor of Pulse, and I had been biking near the Walker Art Center when we passed a group of five squad cars. Curious, we stopped to ask an officer what had happened. Although we both work for newspapers, we didn’t need the force of the media behind our questions. All citizens have the right to ask about police procedures, and while officers might not be obligated to answer, they are in no way justified in responding with unprovoked brutality.
After refusing to answer our questions and then harassing us over bike licensing, where only I was in violation, we gave up and began turning around. However, after one of the officers saw Jef glance at the squad car number, he suddenly decided to change his mind and arrest us instead.
From that point on, the situation degenerated into excessive force and irrational behavior. We were roughed up, patted down, cuffed and thrown into the back of a squad car. I had to visit the Hennepin County Medical Center for my injury, and Jef was released around 10 the next morning. We both were charged with “obstructing the legal process,” something we now have in common with Bill Clinton, the Highway 55 protestors and one of the Hard Times Café owners.
In summary, two bikers stopped to ask police officers a question and ended up cuffed, sore and bloody in the back of a police car. What’s wrong with this picture?
As it turns out, we weren’t the only victims of police abuse that evening. That same Saturday night, another young man, Devonsha Thompson, was beaten by at least five St. Paul police officers after leaving a drill team competition with about 25 other youths. Police claim he kicked a squad car several times, swore at them and ran toward one officer. Although witnesses didn’t see Thompson provoke police, they watched in horror as officers slammed Thompson to the ground, surrounded him and struck him with their fists, feet, knees and clubs.
Thanks to the immediacy of television reporting and extensive media coverage, most people readily remember instances of police brutality involving Rodney King in Los Angeles and the World Trade Organization protesters in Seattle. But they said they probably don’t realize police brutality is more than just a rare occurrence or an isolated incident. It’s a force to be dealt with across the nation, even in the Twin Cities. Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton openly admitted this, once stating, “There was a problem and continues to be a problem of excessive force in this community. I’m not going to deny that. I grew up here.”
In fact, beginning in late 1995, Minneapolis was one of 14 cities involved in a two and a half year Human Rights Watch investigation into police abuse. The investigation found persistent police brutality in all the cities, ranging from sexual assault to murder. Human Rights Watch documented that police and city officials often protected their own, denying each new report of brutality and buffering the offender with a wall of silence. Many officers with long lists of complaints filed against them, would continue to work on the force, and the little punishment meted out to abusive policemen was often long overdue. Serious reforms were only enacted when a brutality case flared into a media scandal.
Why does police brutality persist? Why is there a culture of long-standing negligence and apathetic tolerance? Probably because police recognize their protected status. Probably because the system that monitors police behavior is lax and rarely enforced. Probably because the criminal system responsible for
punishing those who break the laws practically guarantees impunity to abusive officers. And probably because the most frequent victims of police violence are racial minorities – the most socio-economically disadvantaged and marginalized segments of society.
One might argue every human is fallible, and when split-second decisions must be made in high-stress situations, mistakes are bound to occur. Police officers’ jobs are life-threatening, and in their everyday work, they must often witness the seedy horrors of life that few of us can even imagine. Police regularly deal with the scum of humanity, and some of these officers become personally scarred by their work.
Yet even so, episodes of brutality and abuse cannot and should not be brushed aside by excuses of “bad days” or “emotional trauma.” Violations of human rights should never be permitted because of personal error or mere contingencies. Some values must supersede individual circumstances. Can you imagine if doctors tried to pass off malpractice suits with such reasons? “I was having a bad day, I overreacted a bit in the operating room, and whoops, there went your kid’s life. Sorry.” The doctor would lose his license faster than a drunk driver. But when cops overreact? Police chiefs explain, “I think the appropriate amount of force was used.”
We, as citizens, entrust the police with upholding and executing the laws that protect us. Yet we must realize that when we grant them the power to preserve the law, we also grant them the power to abuse the law.
But does this mean every police officer is guilty of abusing his authority, violating the rights of innocent citizens? Of course not. Usually, only a few officers have records of brutality, although those few corrode the reputation and the public trust of the entire profession. And when government institutions – especially the police – act without virtue and without regard for people’s rights, they lose credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of the people.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who now inwardly cringes when I see a police car drive by.
Pulse of the Twin Cities is running a series of excerpts until Aug. 22 from former Minneapolis police chief Tony Bouza’s book, “Unbound: Corruption, Abuse and Heroism by the Boys in Blue.”