Discourtesy Provoked

Whether it’s a problem of false equivalencies or just that any “rebel” given an official title quickly becomes co-opted into the machinery of government, another officious cog in the wheel, isn’t clear. But Richard Emory, chair of New York City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, one-time challenger of police misconduct, is now just another apologist.

The good news is that the pervasive existence of video capturing police encounters with citizens has fundamentally altered the role of the CCRB.

More and more NYPD misconduct is being caught on video — making substantiating complaints a cakewalk for the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, the agency’s head said Monday.

“Video is a fundamental revolution when it comes to the accountability of police officers,” CCRB Chairman Richard Emery told the Daily News. “It’s demystifying the whole investigative process. No longer is the lion’s share of the cases ‘he said, she said’ where additional corroboration is almost always required and substantiation is quite difficult.”

This is a disaster for the CCRB, whose real purpose has morphed from being a putative watchdog to providing a cathartic outlet for citizens who feel aggrieved at the conduct and handling by cops. This is done by creating the appearance of a concerned government agency, while doing everything possible to find complaints unsubstantiated.  There’s a reason why the CCRB has no power or authority to actually do anything to cops, and has been a running joke since its birth. It was never meant to actually accomplish anything.

With video, the whole scheme is falling apart.  No longer is it easy to blow off a citizen’s complaint. No longer can they use the well-worn “unsubstantiated” stamp to rid themselves of these meddlesome citizens. Now there’s video.

According to the CCRB’s semiannual report, released Tuesday, 45% of excessive force allegations made to the agency were substantiated with video evidence in the first six months of the year.

In all of 2014, only 34% of excessive force complaints were proven with video evidence, the report notes.

Putting aside the fact that percentages aren’t affected by time frames (raw numbers, yes, but percentages, not so much), the existence of video really jams up the works. At least as far as the CCRB is concerned. Historically, no citizen’s complaint was “substantiated” unless he had three priests and a nun who observed and verified that the impropriety happened. After all, why would a cop lie?

Notably, the findings of the CCRB, including substantiated complaint and “recommended” punishment, are forwarded to the police commissioner, who can then summarily ignore them because the CCRB is still a toothless tiger.

But if there is any doubt that the CCRB, and particularly Emory, has assumed the role of police apologist, it’s shown in the flip-side of the video revolution:

Yet seasoned cop watchdogs say the CCRB is also using the videos to recommend lesser penalties for cops — a Catch-22 that some find distasteful.

If a video shows a civilian mouthing off to a cop before the misconduct is made, the officer will likely get a reduced punishment — which could mean instructions on how to act in those situations rather than losing vacation days, said Jose LaSalle, a member of the CopWatch Patrol Unit, a police monitoring group in the South Bronx.

“Out of everything that is on the video, the only thing that should matter is what the complaint is about, be it force, discourtesy, whatever,” LaSalle said.

“Distasteful” isn’t an appropriate word in this context. Disingenuous would be better, but dishonest would be far more accurate. Note that LaSalle speaks of a “civilian mouthing off.” First, everyone involved is a civilian, from cop to citizen. This detail may reflect the name of the agency, the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Then again, in light of the militarization of police, and their view of the citizenry as enemy combatants, its use by a watchdog of a watchdog is disturbing.

But the bigger problem is that a citizen’s exercise of his constitutional right to tell a cop where to go is seen as a mitigating factor in a cop’s use of excessive force. After all, cops are only human, and aren’t they allowed to get pissed off at a citizen failing to show them the respect to which they deem themselves entitled? And isn’t the lack of respect worthy of a decent beating?  At least a little beating? What about the cops’ feelings?

An officer’s misconduct has never been excused because the video shows people berating the cop, Emery said.

“There has never been a balancing of the behavior on the video that excuses misconduct,” the CCRB chairman explained. “But if the discourtesy is provoked, that may affect the penalty phase.”

And the false equivalency rears its ugly, and fundamentally wrong, head. Straight from the mouth of the guy in charge of watchdogging the cops. Police discourtesy, provided “discourtesy” means a decent thrashing, is never “provoked.”

This isn’t a couple of guys on the street chatting amongst themselves, where one says something that angers the other.  This involves a police officer who can seize a citizen, for good reason, bad reason or no reason, and back it up with death, and leave it to a judge to figure out later whether it was lawful, constitutional or just a raw abusive exercise of power.

Yo, Richard, cops aren’t random guys entitled to feel whatever they feel, react like anyone else to the annoying, if not offensive, things people say to them.  And it’s not disputed that people can be pretty annoying, not to mention offensive, in the things they say to cops. But these are people who are given shields, guns and paychecks from the public fisc to do a job, and that job includes being courteous to, and not harming for kicks, the public.

The public does not have a duty to treat police in a friendly and cooperative manner. They have a First Amendment right to tell a cop “fuck you,” even if it’s not the smartest way to handle the situation. This is America, and stuff like constitutional rights matters, no matter how empathetic to police Emory has become.

It’s time for Emory to get a well-paid police union job, and leave the CCRB to those who aren’t deeply concerned with police feelings.  And it’s time for the CCRB to overcome its lack of any real power, to stop being a joke, by issuing reports and recommendations (since it can do nothing more) fully condemning police misconduct. It may not be able to punish, but it can certainly use its bully pulpit to call out misconduct as clearly, strongly, loudly as possible.

It just won’t happen under Mr. Official-Guy Emory, whose one-time empathy for those beaten has switched allegiance to those doing the beating. Because they have feelings too.

24 thoughts on “Discourtesy Provoked

  1. Christopher Crawshaw

    Kudos to you sir, the misuse of the word “civilian” by law enforcement kicks me right in the feelz everytime.

    1. SHG Post author

      I used to consider such “details” as mere semantics, until Radley Balko burned the significance into my brain. I am now troubled that I can’t find a word that really says what I want it to say. Clearly, civilians is wrong, but so is citizens. Non-citizens are just as deserving of constitutional rights. Non-cops is unwieldy. Public has the similar problems as civilian. I’m at a loss for a word that really fulfills the purpose.

      1. Matt B

        That’s fascinating and disturbing on reflection. The way people use language matters, whether by shaping thought or as a symptom of thought. That there’s no way in our current idiom to describe people who aren’t police without implying police are soldiers or excluding non-citizens says something about and possibly shapes our thinking about police and their behavior. My attention is always drawn to the use of “individual” or, worse, “female/male” as dehumanizing in police reports and press releases. As though they aren’t men, women, or people. Apologies for going off-topic.

      2. Jyjon

        I can see why you have problems with those words. You are picking the words that are used in the super-hero genre of comics, which most americans are intimately familiar with, to trivialize the average person. Those words have been used in quasi-propaganda ways and in the crime fighting milieu, have an almost derogatory connotation.
        Try using the word ‘Person’ or ‘Homie’ with a modifying adjective. Good adjective choices could be Normal, Typical, Regular, etc. This would then make the cop, abnormal, atypical, irregular, etc. which makes it much easier to subtly marginalize them in the narrative. Who would really take an abnormal homie seriously?
        Yes, I know it isn’t a buzzword and it is cumbersome with so many syllables. If you want a buzzword of some sort, you’ll have to do like any PR homie does and make one up.

      3. John

        The proletariat, plebeians, wood shampoo targets, the enemy, the great unwashed, the hoi polloi, thugs, the herd, the masses, the mob, riffraff, etc.

        Or given the way that every routine traffic stop is an opportunity for a summary execution while the our self-proclaimed hero in blue pisses themselves in fear at an untimely twitch (real or perceived, objective or subjective), how about “Big Scary Monsters That Could Kill Me With A Glance That Must Be Put Down Like a Mad Dog*”.

        * or any small cute animal that I want to execute.

        You could shorten it to BSMTCKMWaGTMBPTLaMD.

        To much?

      4. st

        They call themselves LEO’s. Law Enforcement Officers. Drop the law and officer parts and just call them “Enforcers”.

        Perhaps the unbadged mundanes could be called “marks.” Not pejorative, and the word covers both those whose poor choices attract the attention of enforcers as well as those unfortunates trapped on the good guy curve who are selected for reasons they cannot possibly know.

      1. sam medley

        Citizen and cop, as used in your post, doesn’t quiet work either since cops are as (or more) likely to be citizens than the people they interact with. It is quiet proper that there is no term that captures this distinction. Usually we assign a term for a person in a interaction based on the nature of the business underlying the interaction (patient vs nurse, licensee vs clerk, complainant vs police officer if you are filing a complaint). But if you are just walking down a street or chatting with some passerby there is no need for a special term for you – everybody is supposedly entitled to do it in this country.

  2. Ruben

    Often those of limited intelligence and those of dubious mental stability believe respect is something you are entitled to just for putting on a uniform, that the government and its actors, by default, should be respected by its population. And then they confuse respect with subservience.
    Courtesy and respect must be earned. What have the police done to earn it lately?

    1. SHG Post author

      By starting with “limited intelligence and those of dubious mental stability,” you undermine anything else you have to say. This is a reddit level attitude, and has no place here. As for “respect must be earned,” it’s so obvious and has been said so often as to be trite.

  3. Marc R

    LEO v unsworn. They’re an officer but the military has MPs and in JAG parlance their reports certainly don’t call the non-MP a civilian. They’re just referenced by rank and officer then rank. The only distinguishing characteristic between civilian LEOs and the public is them being deputized or whatever oath ceremony confers their arrest power. I haven’t thought of categories before but “civilian” strikes me as too broad yet too narrow; a LEO can arrest a soldier off base and LEOs can be arrested by other LEOs. While I think “unsworn” above is most accurate it seems derogatory in some way like they failed to be as a good a citizen as a LEO.

    Maybe defining them by the situation. “Stopped motorists”, “suspects,” “arrestees,” etc. That’s not a universal distinction like LEO but not as odd as “unsworn.”

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