The Code of Silence and the Stereotype of Bravery

March 8, 2016

It’s hard to explain to most people how serious the problems with the police are. Ideology makes people choose sides and blink reality. Urging change is treated by police as pure hostility. There are many good policemen doing everything they can to protect all of us. Equally clearly there are policemen who are there for the power trip from the uniform or from their weapons.

But their solidarity and their code of silence make it a much more serious problem, making all criticism out of bounds and protecting policemen who commit serious crimes or abuses.

Sometimes victim’s families win civil suits but the city pays, which means you and me pay, while the officers will be indemnified. That’s not nearly good enough.

Some police were so brave that they were terrified by a man reaching for his front door key and pulverized him with 41 shots. So brave that a Black man in a winter coat, walking like he had a bad knee, a limp or a package – suggests a gun to them and the encounter ends with his death. Or they decide to take what they think the law is into their own hands in a deliberately rough a ride before considering a trip to the hospital, recently ending one victim’s life in Baltimore. I don’t buy stereotypes, including stereotypes of the police. My blood curdles when officers who should be brave and careful shoot unarmed and law-abiding Black men in the back saying they were scared.

Of course it’s now legal to carry guns. But not for African-American men. It’s not even legal for African-American men to look like they might be carrying a gun because it scares our policemen and someone often dies. Of course the rest of us are not supposed to react that way – we’d be charged with murder.

We call the police the finest – but many can’t deal with any but instantaneous obedience and agreement. Objections are often met with charges of resisting arrest or interfering with a police officer. My advice to anyone stopped by the police is to sound apologetic and compliant but say absolutely nothing except your desire to talk to an attorney – politely. It’s my advice to stay alive. But too many don’t get the message. They’re Americans who “know their rights” and they’re angry when they’re stopped for no good reason. They don’t respect people who fly off the handle at the first sign of disagreement, using their weapons to get “respect” for the cops.

Boy I’d love to have unqualified confidence in cops and troopers, to respect their bravery, good sense and commitment to police themselves. But fairness, accuracy and justice are far from consistent results of policing. Cops have told me they’d never rat on a brother and would deny what they knew to be true. I’ve had policemen tell me they change the facts to make people guilty of crimes – like convicting Black or young men in the wrong attire of carrying concealed weapons – including hunting rifles in plain view. Judges have told me they believe the police about half the time – they just don’t know which half.

There have been many exposes of police corruption. But when someone tries to stop it, they are ostracized, forced out or worse. Police unions protect police records so that no one, including the press, can get the facts.

That’s the force we have – one that condones bad behavior over codes of decent conduct. That’s not what our Founders dreamed of or what we deserve. It’s not about rogue officers. It’s about the misplaced loyalty that protects bad behavior. I’d lock their guns in the armory until they learned to police themselves and protect us all.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 8, 2016.


The Death of Dontay Ivy and “Walking While Black”

March 1, 2016

I’ve been reading District Attorney David Soares’ letter to Mayor Sheehan on the death of Donald (Dontay) Ivy while in police custody. I’d like to discuss some of what came out of the D.A.’s investigation.

Donald Ivy went out to an ATM, to collect disability benefits, intending to come home. David Soares describes Dontay’s first encounter with the police that night. Two officers [quote] “approached … [Dontay Ivy] sitting on the steps of a property in the South End. The officers approached … in an attempt to learn if he was trespassing.” [close quote] Satisfied that he was’t, they left. Have you ever rested on the steps of a building? Did you think you were trespassing? You weren’t and he wasn’t unless the owner or tenant conveyed an objection or he had gone through a lock, door, fence or barricade. For the police, the mere fact that an African-American man was sitting on some steps was enough to check on him.

A little later that evening, Dontay was walking on Lark Street. Soares noted that it was 26 degrees according to “historical weather data.” But the officers’ became concerned because he was wearing a winter coat, what they called “a ‘puffer’ coat,” [close quote] was [quote] “walking heavily on his left arm” [close quote] and [quote] “appeared to be bunching up his left hand into his sleeve.” [close quote] I’ve done that, sometimes to shelter something from the weather, sometimes because one hand was colder, because of the way I’d been using my hands or had somehow restricted circulation in one hand.

According to District Attorney Soares, one officer said [quote] “the way he was walking didn’t seem right.” [close quote] I don’t know why – a crick, a cramp, or a little arthritis. I can imagine someone coming up to me and asking if I was OK. But the officers asked to see Dontay’s hands and wanted to know where he was going. I can’t relate to that from my experience. Can you?

Apparently because Dontay had on a loose fitting winter coat, whatever he was able to afford on his disability check, one of the officers [quote] “was under the impression that Mr. Ivy might have had a weapon, or possibly drugs.” [close quote] That inference was’t backed up by anything found on Mr. Ivy. It’s an inference that could easily be drawn about most of us sometimes, but I suspect few of us have had police make that kind of inference about us – certainly not if we have white skin and decent clothes.

The report continues that one officer [quote] “noticed what appeared to be a tied-off plastic baggy of the sort used to package drugs on the ground, about ten to twelve feet away from Mr. Ivy, near where he had been walking.” [close quote] If I had to explain every plastic bag found near me when I’m out for a walk, neither the police nor I would have time for anything else. And plastic bag stories are so common in cases where police are trying to justify a search that everyone in the criminal process has become enormously skeptical. It later turned out that the bag was empty.

After they questioned him further, they decided to pat Dontay down. According to the police, he consented, but reacted to being touched by pulling his hands down. Soares’ letter says, “From interviews with members of the Ivy family, we are led to believe that, as part of his mental illness, Mr. Ivy did not like to be touched.” [close quote] Mr. Ivy was under medication for his illness. Let me add that I have learned, from experience and from some direct remarks, that many African-Americans do not like to be touched even in ways that are completely unexceptional in the U.S., including a tap on the shoulder which got me a withering look from a speaker at an event of an organization of which I was a board member.

Obviously things kept getting worse until, as David Soares summarized the findings of the medical examiner, [quote] “Mr. Ivy suffered from an underlying condition that made him particularly susceptible to a heart attack brought on by the stress of the incident with the police.” [close quote] By the time of his death, that stress included the officers attempt to handcuff him, Ivy’s attempt to flee, a chase, subduing Ivy with handcuffs, leg restraints, a police baton and several taser strikes.

Clearly before the stress killed him, the stress led Ivy to do some things that were unwise, that I as an attorney would have advised against had I been able to reach him. But people doing stupid things under stress is a fact of being human. Interestingly, at one point, one of the officers told Dontay they were going to detain him because he couldn’t follow the officer’s instructions to keep his hands up, adding [quote] “You’re making me a bit nervous.” [close quote]

It’s striking how ordinary all this is – Dontay’s behavior before the police stopped him; his obvious fear of the police and what they were doing is also ordinary, especially in the Black community; the officers’ fear that Ivy had a gun, even though based on a string of inferences from very ordinary behavior, and fear about a possession which, under recent U.S. Supreme Court cases, would arguably have been within his rights.

But from all those very ordinary facts, a man is dead and the D.A., the grand jury, the police chief and the Mayor all apparently find no one blameworthy. What it means is that for [quote] “walking while Black,” [close quote] a man needs the savvy of a criminal defense lawyer and the courage to deal with stressful situations by focusing on how scared the police are because of the color of his skin.

— A shorter version of this commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 1, 2016.


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