WHEN AGNES LAWLESS and three friends were inside a Lukoil convenience store in the Northeast at 3 a.m. last August, they'd all but forgotten the fender-bender in which they'd been involved moments earlier.
There was little damage, and the other driver had left the scene, near Northeast Philadelphia Airport.
What they didn't know was that they'd been rear-ended by the son of a police officer who was on duty, and dad was about to get involved.
Lawless was standing at the counter of the store, at Comly Road and Roosevelt Boulevard, smiling and chatting with the clerk, when she was grabbed from behind and violently pushed back with a police officer's gun in her face.
"He hit me with his left hand, and he had his gun in his right hand," Lawless said. "He pushed his gun into the left side of my neck. It caused a scrape-type bruise on my neck."
After a chaotic struggle, Lawless was arrested and charged with assaulting the officer.
Lawless and her three friends, all in their early 20s, filed complaints with the Police Department's Internal Affairs Bureau. But in cases in which it's a defendant's word against a police officer's, the benefit of doubt often falls to the cop.
Except when there's video.
From there, the story follows an all too familiar pattern. The video is consistent with the account of the arrested woman and the witnesses, while contradicting the account of the arresting officer.
Today, I will say exactly what's on my mind.
That almost always goes badly.
Had there been no video camera, the girl in this video would have almost certainly been convicted on false charges. It's the word of a cop versus the word of a teenager. Who you gonna believe?
Skipping over the obligatory qualifications about not all cops being bad, this sort of nonsense happens all the time, mostly involving the poor and younger people whose parents can't afford lawyers. Cops generally know who they can get away with abusing and who they can't. Bullies target the defenseless. Who knew?
Misconduct makes the news when the police underestimate their victims or when we get access to a video that the police couldn't destroy first.
Cops lie about misconduct.
They lie about it all the time. They lie in reports. They lie to cover up for one another. They lie in court. In virtually every case involving a video that incriminates a cop, the cops do everything they can to suppress or destroy it. It is not an aberration when they do this; it is an aberration when they don't.
I have never known a cop who hasn't admitted to me that he has either lied, knowingly violated the rights of citizens or covered for another cop who did. Never. Not one. I've known cops who are actually afraid of fellow cops because these cops are so aggressive. Do they report wrongdoing by these cops? Never.
Human beings are not good with power.
Social psychologists (and history) have shown us, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this is a fact.
Blogger Radley Balko documents police misconduct on a daily basis, but until a Henry Louis Gates sets off a firestorm, the subject of routine abuse of police power isn't on the public's radar. I've noticed that on several blogs I read regularly, the number of comments on the Gates case are through the roof. The only reason the Gates case matters to most people is that it arouses their political sensitivities about race, which is what bothers me about the Gates situation.
Most people are more upset about racism or a possible false accusation of racism than they are about the possibility that human beings with power, people we employ to protect us, may be abusing the power that WE GRANT to them. If this had been a case involving a well-known white academic, if there had been no question raised about racism, would the case have been more than a blip in the online world?
The police are our proxies.
What they do, they do in our name. Perhaps that's why so many refuse to take misconduct seriously or why they automatically assume that cops are justified when questions of misconduct arise. Or maybe it has something to do with the just world hypothesis--the powerful bias that leads us to believe that people mostly get what they deserve. Or maybe it's something else.
"I know what you're thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five?"
Why did so many people like those movies? Harry IS dirty, but it doesn't matter because he's tough. Identifying with the Harrys of this world makes us feel a little tougher in a difficult world, but it's hell if you're Harry's enemy.
Who or what is Harry's enemy? The evil and the corrupt, you say? Only incidentally. For Harry, the real enemy is vulnerability.
We tell ourselves that the Harrys of this world only destroy evil people, but that isn't true.
Harry's entire persona is an ongoing annihilation of vulnerability. Harry's victims are the detested, vulnerable parts of Harry and ourselves--parts that must be denied, projected and destroyed. Unfortunately, innocent people get caught in the crossfire--unwitting actors cast in roles we've assigned based on an internal drama. They become proxies for unwanted parts of ourselves, just as the Harrys of this world can serve as proxies for the tough, invulnerable beings we wish to be.