The comparison was obvious from the moment the query arrived. Gerry Spence wrote a book entitled Police State, How America’s Cops Get Away With Murder, published by St. Martin’s Press. Even the cover art struck an eerie similarity to Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop, which I reviewed and subsequently recommended as mandatory summer reading.
How could I not accept the review copy? How could I not read it? What could possibly go wrong?
Ah, but this wasn’t a seminal work on one of the most important subjects in criminal justice by a journalist willing to put in the effort to ferret out decades of facts. This was a book by the trial lawyer’s living legend, Gerry Spence, who never lost a case™.
It wasn’t until the first paragraph of the first chapter that the book went into Gerry mode, where appears the standard epiphany of how, after more than 60 years of practicing law, he finally came to grips with the question:
Over my career I’ve shut out a haunting question I wasn’t prepared to face. Are we safe from the police? Have our police become killers on the loose who cover up their crimes, and there’s often no one to stop them?
Why wasn’t he “prepared to face” the question that everyone else has been asking aloud daily? Because it’s a great rhetorical device to explain why he didn’t write this book 30 years ago, but feels emotionally compelled to do so now. Ah, Gerry.
And it took three more pages, a whole three more, before Godwin’s Law kicked in.
If we listen, do we hear the Fuhrer’s ghost laughing? If we listen, do we hear what history has taught us? When the police become the military, the people become the enemy. Even the National Security Agency, our “international cop,” has recently been caught illegally spying on us, reminiscent as it may be of Nazi Germany.
Yep, he did it. He went there. But the thesis behind the emotion, and repeating theme in the book is this:
In his 60-plus years as a trial lawyer, Gerry Spence has never represented a person accused of a crime in which the police hadn’t themselves violated the law. Whether by covering up their own corrupt dealings, by the falsification or manufacture of evidence, or by the outright murder of innocent civilians, those individuals charged with upholding the law too often break it, in ways more scandalous than the courts have dared admit. The police and prosecutors won’t charge or convict themselves, and so the crimes of the criminal justice system are swept under the rug. Nothing changes.
All of which then goes headlong into classic Gerry Spence. Where Balko went substantive, Spence launches into his war stories, at the end of which he seeks to wrap in up in a bow and link it back his “nothing changes” mantra. The use of a truly important concept as a vehicle for telling war stories has never been a favorite of mine, which was made clear in my review of Harvey Silverglate’s Three Felonies A Day. If you want to write a book about your war stories, call it “My War Stories” so I won’t have to read it. Don’t try to gussy it up with a theme, even one as brilliant as Harvey’s, just to suck a reader in and then dump your war stories on him.
But this is Gerry Spence, and there are two huge points to be made. First, Spence has better war stories than anyone else. Come on, who else can write about Randy Weaver of Ruby Ridge getting a letter from the government offering to return his wife’s severed fingertips? Sure, every lawyer thinks he’s got great stories to tell, but compared to Spence, ours are crap. Spence has stories.
Second, if there is one thing that Gerry Spence does spectacularly, it’s tell a story. They are rich and vivid. They grab you by the
nuts throat and pull you along, even if you really don’t want to go.
Sure, there are holes. As he concedes up front, his stories take some literary license, and quotes aren’t necessarily, how can I say this nicely, true. As a lawyer, the gaps in the narrative where things need to be, like rulings, are obvious, and he occasionally glosses over a contested fact by portraying it as so obvious as to require no explanation, when it demands explanation. But still, the guy can tell a story.
The book isn’t what one might think from the title or cover. There are no real insights that most readers don’t already know, and likely have considered at a far deeper level than does the end of chapter wrap up. His solutions to these obvious problems are similarly obvious. But if you want to read a book with some great stories, told in a way that only a living legend can do, then Gerry Spence’s Police State does the trick.