photo by Andre Gustavo Stumpf
For most of us, mistakes at work have consequences. The bigger the mistake, the bigger those consequences tend to be.
For police officers, however, this hasn’t always been true. The ubiquity of smartphones and other mobile devices that record video is starting to change things, but the shift has been slow and painful.
At the end of March, Sanjay Seth posted a video on his YouTube channel that showed a plainclothes police detective verbally attacking Seth’s Uber driver. The New York Times reported that the detective, later identified as Patrick Cherry, was placed on desk duty pending an investigation by the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Cherry has been the subject of 12 previous complaints to the review board, according to the Times, and the recent incident was reviewed by the Internal Affairs Bureau before being handed over to the CCRB.
I know of another incident of a New York City detective verbally abusing a driver from a first-hand account that, while it didn’t make the news, was no less unsettling. In that case, the detective issued a groundless citation for reckless driving in addition to unnecessarily berating a driver. (That case is pending, so I will not identify the driver, who is personally known to me.) Though the citation is likely to be either tossed out or pleaded down to a lesser traffic charge, the detective will escape accountability because, in this instance, there is no known video of his conduct.
The case of the Uber driver who served as the focus of Cherry’s rage echoes the infinitely more tragic cases of Walter Scott in South Carolina and, nearly a year ago, Eric Garner in New York. In all three, video taken by bystanders has served a key role in documenting events as they unfolded.
Of course, the cases of the two New York drivers are not directly comparable to those of Garner and Scott in their scope: there was no physical assault, and no one is dead as a result. But the officers involved still abused their power and abused the citizenry. Even with video footage, justice may still remain tricky in the relatively lower-stakes encounter Seth recorded. While the CCRB can recommend disciplinary action for Cherry, the final decision remains with Commissioner Bill Bratton. Cherry faces the loss of up to 30 days of pay, as well as the loss of his badge and gun, but verbal abuse of a civilian is not grounds to fire a New York police officer, according to sources that spoke to DNAinfo.
This is where the public sector differs sharply from the private sector. Certainly if those who work for me, or for most other private employers, addressed anyone in the capacity of their employment the way Cherry spoke to the driver, they would instantly find themselves unemployed, regardless of their later remorse for letting “emotions get the better” of them. Unless, perhaps, they were union members, in which case their bosses might not have the power to fire them on the spot. This is one thing when the union worker makes cars; it is quite another when he or she carries a deadly weapon.
Vlogger John Randolph, better known online as Jay Smooth, recently drew a parallel between encounters with police gone wrong and airplane crashes, suggesting that without an equivalent of an airplane’s “black box,” sorting out the truth of what happened can quickly grow fraught. “We have thousands of police officers entrusted with other people’s lives every day, but when the worst case scenario hits of them abusing that power, we do not have a system in place that ensures we will know what happened,” he said. “In fact, when the worst case scenario hits of an officer abusing their power, that’s precisely when it’s most likely we will have to take that officer’s word for what happened unless one of us [civilians] just happens to be there recording.”
As the Walter Scott case most recently demonstrated, dashboard cameras and smartphone video can serve as a partial “black box” for these worst-case scenarios. But without a system in place to make sure that consequences are real and immediate, it isn’t enough.
When we hand people guns, along with the ability to threaten their use to enforce their authority and the discretion to decide when to actually use them, we must demand personal accountability. That demand starts at the top, with police chiefs and civilian-run disciplinary panels that actually have the power to act and the willingness to do so. The needless death of a fleeing civilian captured on video should not be necessary to get a police officer fired.
Yes, we have to beware of the rush to judgment and of yielding to political pressure. Ferguson should teach us that. But Officer Michael Slager, who has been charged with Scott’s murder and fired from the North Charleston Police Department, gave his account of the encounter knowing full well that other officers who could have contradicted it probably would not. Only a citizen’s video ensured justice. This idea - that police are a brotherhood that sticks together against the public - has to stop.
The surest way to stop it is to hold each officer who carries a badge and a gun accountable for his or her conduct. And, in turn, we must both empower top-level police officials enforce that accountability, and demand that they do so at the risk of their own jobs, just as is the case in the military. Bratton, and others in his position, should treat this matter with all the seriousness a commanding military officer would, without union apologists stepping in on an officer’s behalf with the implicit threat of concerted job action to defend police privilege. Already this year, New York cops staged a major but unacknowledged ticket-writing slowdown to express their displeasure with the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio. These cops will not willingly accept limits on what they think is their proper due of respect and privilege.
Many defending the police have argued that a few bad incidents, or even a few bad officers, are not enough on which to judge the entire system. But until we build in real accountability, the public has no way of knowing whether that is true - and no faith that such bad apples will be removed when they are identified, even if civilians have gotten much better at collecting evidence of their misbehavior.
Either police unions are eliminated entirely, or they should be limited to bargaining on compensation and working conditions. Discipline needs to be put back in the hands of commanders. Misbehavior is easier to record; now we need to make sure that the appropriate consequences follow.