Do black lives matter? Do cops’s lives matter? The answer to both questions is obvious: yes. That’s what makes the arrest of a fifteen year-old-girl in New Haven not long ago such a combustible topic. The sparks still flying after the arrest are proof that we need civilian police accountability boards.
The arrest was captured on YouTube. The officer forced a young black woman against the back of an SUV, and then used a leg-sweep to force her to the ground. She landed face- and shoulder-first on a curb covered with snow. It’s an ugly video, and the picture of the young woman’s face posted online a day or so thereafter is ugly, too. She reportedly suffered a fractured shoulder and an abrasion at the corner of one of her eyes.
Immediately after this maneuver was posted online, my office was contacted. “Did you see the cops plant the knife on her?”
I looked at the video. I didn’t see that. But I did see an officer raise his hand with something that looked like a knife. The crowd milling about in the video was angry, berating the officer for brutalizing a child.
New Haven police officer Joshua Smereczynsky responded to a call about a fight at Buffalo Wild Wings on Church Street. It was a routine sort of call. The caller reported weapons might have been involved, according New Haven police chief Dean Esserman. Esserman also claims the officer saw a knife in the young woman’s purse before forcing, or was it slamming,? her to the ground.
The videotape struck me as regrettably common, as a matter of law. I’ve litigated scores, if not hundreds, of police brutality claims. The law is highly deferential to police officers, permitting them broad discretion in the amount of force they can use to overcome even nominal resistance.
But the take down also struck me as gasoline poured over the flames of a community, largely black, that is still wondering whether their lives matter in the wake of police killings in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York. Chief Esserman put Officer Smereczynsky on desk duty while conducting a hasty review of the incident. In short order, the officer was exonerated, with Mayor Toni Harp signing off.
This only served to make matters worse. The police union rallied behind the officer, claiming that the chief and mayor had sold out a patrolman simply doing his job. The officers held a rally, led by pugnacious police union president Louis Cavaliere, and attended by the mother of the officer. Community activists crashed the cops’s rally. There was almost, to quote Bruce Morrison, “blood in the streets in the town of New Haven.”
What’s going on here?
The answer is simple: a crisis of legitimacy.
Many urban communities regard police officers less as a helping hand than as an occupying power. Police departments respond with various community policing strategies designed to foster trust. Despite these efforts, many still regard police officers as too quick to suspect young people of color of a crime simply by being black in public.
The color line still separates and divides.
A good friend of mine writes frequently on Facebook what he calls “Plantation Chronicles,” vignettes about what it is like to be a black man in New Haven. Here’s how he characterized the arrest: a “police violent assault of a handcuffed 15yr old girl.”
To Cavaliere and Esserman, the officer was just doing the job he was trained to do it. The officer was entitled to assure compliance, and, faced with a potential threat to his safety, to use force.
When the same action is both a violent assault and an officer simply doing his job, there’s trouble coming. If lawmen look like gangsters, then how can we build a community in which all feel safe?
It’s a serious question in urban areas across the country in the wake of the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Police officers were exonerated in those deaths, but the deaths outraged, and radicalized, many. If the law condones killing, then perhaps there’s something wrong with the law.
Disputes about whether police use of force is or is not justified need to be decided in a public forum. Letting secret grand juries decide these things, or leaving them to the discretion of a police chief, deprives a wary community of any sense that they matter.
For years, claims of unreasonable force, police brutality, could be litigated in federal courts, before juries in open court. But judges tired of these claims and have erected significant barriers to letting such cases see the light of day in a courtroom. The result is a sense of unaccountability among police officers. If the courts, and juries, won’t look, then swing away, or so the ethos among some officers seems.
Why not have civilian police accountability boards? Let a citizen aggrieved by an officer’s conduct file a complaint that will be aired in public. Let the community come and vote on whether the officer’s actions was or was not reasonable.
In ancient Athens, jury trials typically took place in a forum with as many as 500 jurors, all citizens. Why not assemble those who care in a community to come, listen to testimony, and then vote on whether they approve, or disapprove, of police behavior? One needn’t give this assembly the right to hire, fire, demote or otherwise punish. Simply let the community be heard.
I have no idea what Officer Smereczynsky saw when he arrested the young woman in New Haven. I know plenty of people who think a knife was planted on her by a fellow cop. These folks don’t trust Chief Esserman’s private review.
And if the police union thinks the officer did nothing more than an honest job for an honest day’s pay, let it make that case before those affected by the decision of the arresting officer.
Legitimacy requires transparency, and that, in the case of police misconduct, requires public hearings.