The country watched in outrage last week as Salt Lake City Police Detective Jeff Payne forcibly arrested burn unit nurse Alex Wubbels for (properly) refusing to allow Payne to take a blood sample from an unconscious crime victim in late July. Surprisingly, Payne's superior officers did not find his behavior concerning enough to remove him from active duty until a video of the incident generated a crescendo of public outrage. As of now, Payne is on (paid) administrative leave pending an investigation, which means that he is being "disciplined" with a taxpayer-funded vacation.
Oh, that we all should suffer such terrible punishment for being caught on video clearly attempting to violate two people's constitutional rights.
Payne, however, is not really the issue here. Pretty much everyone is in agreement that Payne was in the wrong and should be punished. Ditto the as-yet unnamed lieutenant who allegedly ordered Payne to arrest Wubbels. The issue, as always, is the other cops who were present in the video, all of whom stood by and either did nothing to oppose what Payne was doing or actually egged him on.
Whenever I watch videos like this — videos where there is little or no ambiguity about whether police misconduct has occurred — I'm always interested in the reactions of other police who are present. Do any of them attempt to intervene to prevent their colleague from making a mistake? Do any of them promptly report the misconduct to their superiors afterward? If so, do their superiors take appropriate action to remove bad apple cops from the streets?
All too often, even in clear-cut situations of police misconduct, the answer to one or all of these questions is "no."
We all like to believe (with good reason) that most cops would not act in the way that Detective Payne did. We like to believe that there are few Michael Slagers in police departments across this country — cops who would shoot a suspect in the back and then plant evidence on them to cover up the incident.
We believe that it is very rare for police officers to fire indiscriminately at a car full of fleeing teenagers, as recently indicted Texas police Officer Roy Oliver allegedly did. We believe — as we must — that officers very rarely brazenly plant evidence on suspects, as they appear to have been caught doing recently in Baltimore.
It's probably true that officers who would engage in these overtly illegal acts are the exception, rather than the rule. However, each of these videos shares one thing in common: the presence of other police officers on the scene who said or did nothing to stop the brutality when it was occurring, failed to properly report it, or actually participated in an after-the-fact cover-up.
When the shocking video of Walter Scott's shooting rocketed around the internet, almost everyone focused on Slager as he walked over to Scott's dying body and dropped a taser next to it. Certainly, Slager's behavior (for which he pled guilty and will likely serve a lengthy prison sentence) was troubling. But what about the fact that there was another officer present in the video, who was walking around Scott's body while Slager planted the evidence? What about the fact that this other officer made no move to stop or confront Slager, and there is no indication that he reported what Slager did?
Texas Officer Roy Oliver has been indicted for murder, which is an indication of how seriously his behavior deviated from what we expect of police officers. There is relatively little dispute that Oliver's actions were clearly excessive and deserve punishment. Isn't it more troubling, though, that Oliver's police chief initially claimed — contrary to the video evidence that he must have had in his possession — that the car Oliver shot "drove aggressively" toward Oliver?
Likewise, to me, the most disturbing part of the Baltimore video wasn't the apparent planting of evidence by one bad police officer — it was the fact that several other police officers who were present clearly acted like they had not witnessed anything unusual, improper, or blameworthy.
Reasonable people can disagree about the prevalence of excessive force and improper conduct in police departments. Many people who have never had a negative interaction with their local police department believe, based on their own experience, that officers like Jeff Payne and Roy Oliver and Michael Slager are one-in-a-million bad apples in a sea of good cops.
There may be some degree of truth to that, insofar as most police officers would not behave in that exact way themselves. But isn't it at least a little disquieting that every time one of these videos surfaces, we see other police officers passively standing by? Isn't it disturbing how often, in these cases, their departments issue statements that are contradicted by easily available facts?
How can we believe that these are "isolated incidents" when other police on the scene react with blasé, rather than with shock? More importantly, how can we expect communities that are naturally suspicious of the police to believe it?
Whether or not you think there is a systemic police brutality problem in America, it ought to be obvious that there is a police omertà problem in America that directly contributes to an accountability problem.
Codes of silence exist among institutions that require an "us versus the world" mentality in order to survive. While the difficulties police departments face should in no way be trivialized, this attitude cannot be condoned, because it is injurious to law and order. Further, it contributes to a worsening spiral of disrespect between police departments and the cities they ostensibly protect. The police are not the Marines occupying Fallujah, and they should not operate by the same ethos, even though it might be easier to do so.
Sadly, this attitude has been fostered for so long in so many places that the vital bond between police and the communities they serve may have been broken permanently. If the cycle of violence between police and communities is ever going to end, it is not enough for police to merely avoid participating in brutality themselves. Rather, they must be prepared to be a part of restoring community trust by confronting and rooting out the bad apples — however many there might be — in their midst.
By condoning, minimizing, and covering up for the bad apples in their departments, these police officers are contributing to the perception that police brutality is more widespread than it really is. That's not just bad PR, it's dangerous for police departments because it encourages citizens who feel marginalized to attack police directly, since they feel that nothing bad will happen to bad officers because their fellow officers will just cover up for them. For the sake of both police departments and the communities they serve, the police omertà must end.