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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Police Against Protesters: Sadism or Politics?



The day after several marches and rallies by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement in New York City, The New York Times reported that “two dozen people were arrested at a Citibank branch on LaGuardia Place on trespassing charges. Some witnesses said that the protesters had tried to leave but were locked inside by bank employees. ‘They were trying to leave, but they wouldn’t let them,’ said Meaghan Linick, 23, of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. She said one woman who had been inside and left was forced back inside by police officers. Citibank, in a statement, said the protesters ‘were very disruptive and refused to leave after being repeatedly asked, causing our staff to call 911.’ The statement continued, ‘The police asked the branch staff to close the branch until the protesters could be removed.’” The Times report does not mention whether the protesters were existing Citibank customers trying to close their accounts. The report does refer to this at a Chase bank. “Earlier, about a dozen protesters entered a Chase branch in Lower Manhattan and withdrew their money from the bank while 300 other people circled the block, some shouting chants and beating on drums. The former Chase customers, who declined to reveal how much they had in their accounts — though a few acknowledged it was not much — said they planned to put their money into smaller banks or credit unions.’ The more resources we give to small institutions, the more they’ll be able to provide conveniences like free A.T.M.’s and streamlined online banking so they can compete with the larger banks,’ said Hannah Appel, 33, a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University.” The report does not indicate whether the former customers were arrested.
From the report, it does not appear that anyone was arrested for closing a bank account; the protesters at Chase closed their accounts but were not arrested, while the protesters at Citi did not close their accounts but were arrested (for trespassing). Of course, the newspaper’s information could be mistaken. Were any customers arrested simply for closing a bank account, both the bank branch’s manager and the police involved should be terminated from their respective employments and prosecuted. The report does indicate that Citi employees locked protesters inside the bank. This act constitutes false imprisonment, which is illegal. I would think that the subsequent arrests would be thrown out by a judge.
I suspect that psychologically abusive persons are a sizable presence on many police forces. From casual observation, I have been surprised at how quickly and easily a significant number of police employees cross the line simply because they can—meaning that they assume without reservation that they can get away with trespassing the rights of others with impunity. The pattern is no accident.
Beyond orchestrated political uses of police forces (e.g., to teach those kids a lesson), present police recruitment procedures across the United States are inadequate in ferretting out mentally disturbed, abusive personalities. Furthermore, mechanisms to impose accountability on individual employees of police departments are woefully impotent, given the lack of self-restraint or even apparent self-questioning by police employees who are going to do what they are going to do, period. So, besides investigating particular cases of how the political or business elite uses police departments against the rights of protesters, elected officials in towns and cities (at the urging of state- or federal-level officials if necessary) could do more in seeing to it that the citizens are not abused by individual police employees by 1) ordering police chiefs to expand the role of psychological tests and interviews in the recruitment process and 2) instituting an external, independent committee or board with the power to fire police employees for abusing (or threatening to abuse) their authority.
Concerning recruitment, it is important to keep in mind that no one has a right to be on a police force. It is especially the case that bad attitudes need not apply, yet it does appear that they are extant on police forces. The NYPD, for example, has a long history of police brutality and cover-ups, which suggests that the recruitment process is woefully inadequate in screening out psychologically troubled candidates.



                           Anthony Bologna of NYPD pepper-spraying protesters following his orders


Concerning accountability, enforcement of the law against police who go beyond their authority at the expense of other people should be strengthened and harsher sentences should be enacted. In some jurisdictions, even the laws by which police can make arrests should be tightened. In New York City, for example, police can arrest people for deemed “safety issues” even if no law had been broken. Outside an event run by the Huffington Post, the police lied to author Naomi Wolf when they stated that the Post’s permit barred protests on the sidewalk. Even though Wolf verified with the event organizer that the police claim was false, the police arrested her after she joined some protesters walking up and down the sidewalk (i.e., not obstructing foot traffic). At the police station, a sergeant told her she was arrested for a “safety issue.” According to the Huffington Post, “The cop didn’t dispute her claim that she wasn’t breaking the law. But she said he explained that whenever police deem it a safety issue, they can make an arrest.” Given the propensity of the police to arrest unlawfully, this loophole should be tightened or replaced with procedures triggered in the event of a disaster (not just safety) that can be independently documented (e.g., an explosion in a subway station).  
I suspect that the lack of accountability on police employees who take it on themselves to extend their force beyond the law stems from the fact that enforcement mechanisms are not typically sufficiently independent of the police and local governments. Even “internal affairs” is evidently not sufficient. Police on the beat not sensing any viable external restraint in abusing others is itself indicative of too little accountability on the books as well as in practice. In other words, the attitude itself bespeaks a lapse in the system, which the offending persons undoubtedly know exists and can be counted on as they impose themselves even on people they know to be innocent. A police employee who uses his or her position to intervene in a civil matter, for example, should be fired because it can be assumed that the encroachment was intentional. Also, a police employee who pushes or hits a non-violent citizen without the latter having resisted arrest should be fired. Additionally, the offending officer should be prosecuted. In fact, state legislatures should stiffen the penalties as a deterrent. The penalties for police employees should be stiffer than for other citizens because the right to legitimate force carries with it a special obligation. Breaking a special duty warrants a longer sentence.
Whereas some of the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters referred to “police terrorism,” such hyperbole should be replaced by sadism, the deriving of pleasure by inflicting pain on others. This diagnosis would doubtless apply to Anthony Bologna, who sprayed innocent people with pepper-spray. Beyond politics, the deeper problem is that of sickness. What would happen, je me demande, if the protesters simply chanted, “Sicko! Sicko! Sicko!” or “You’re sick!” at an offending officer as he violently lashes out without provocation?  I suspect that the truth would hurt. Moreover, the protesters could pressure elected officials to stiffen the enforcement mechanisms and sentences.

Sources:

Cara Buckley and Rachel Donadio, “Buoyed by Wall St. Protests, Rallies Sweep the Globe,” The New York Times, October 16, 2011. 


Jason Cherkis, “Author Naomi Wolf Speaks Out About Her Arrest at Occupy Wall Street,” Huffington Post, October 19, 2011.