Wednesday, March 25, 2009

More sticky-fingered cops

From Philadelphia comes word that a roving gang of rogue cops has been looting local shops after carefully disabling security camera systems. It's a stark reminder of the importance of surveillance -- not of the public, but of the folks tasked to protect the public. It's also Exhibit A in the case against turning full responsibility for your safety over to armed men who promise you -- cross their hearts! -- that they have your best interests in mind.

This isn't a new problem. The Roman poet Juvenal put it succinctly when he wrote, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" That is, "Who watches the watchmen?"

For Romans, like for us, it wasn't a hypothetical problem. These days, though, we get to see the evidence replayed on video surveillance footage when a Staten Island bar security camera captures New York City cops looting the till.

Maybe the Philadelphia cops saw the news from New York City. Anyway, the Philadelphia Daily News reports:

ON A SWELTERING July afternoon in 2007, Officer Jeffrey Cujdik and his narcotics squad members raided an Olney tobacco shop.

Then, with guns drawn, they did something bizarre: They smashed two surveillance cameras with a metal rod, said store owners David and Eunice Nam.

The five plainclothes officers yanked camera wires from the ceiling. They forced the slight, frail Korean couple to the vinyl floor and cuffed them with plastic wrist ties.

"I so scared," said Eunice Nam, 56. "We were on floor. Handcuffs on me. I so, so scared, I wet my pants."

The officers rifled through drawers, dumped cigarette cartons on the floor and took cash from the registers. Then they hauled the Nams to jail.

The uniformed raiders are said to have helped themselves to thousands of dollars during their assaults on the bodegas and smoke shops of the city, only a fraction of which was ever turned into the police department as evidence in the "narcotics" raids. The officers also took groceries, drinks, cigarettes and whatever else lay at hand.

In all cases, they were careful to disable video surveillance systems before committing their robberies.

The victimized shopkeepers are almost all immigrants working long hours in troubled neighborhoods where crime is a very real threat. There's no denying that the entry-level entrepreneurs and the stores they own need protection of some kind.

But there's a difference between, on the one hand, hiring help to guard streets and businesses and, on the other hand, creating a warrior class with special authority and power that just begs for abuse. Hired help you can just fire when they misbehave; rogue warriors ... well ... that's a different matter.

When Sir Robert Peel professionalized law-enforcement in the 19th Century, he made it clear in the principles he laid down for the trade that police officers were never intended to be some elevated class of people. "[T]he police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent upon every citizen."

Today, though, police testimony is given extra weight in court, there are special laws protecting police against public scrutiny and special penalties against those who harm law-enforcement officers. In the course of their duties, they are allowed to engage in criminal activity -- such as purchasing illegal drugs -- that would land you or I in prison. In many ways, police officers are treated as a special class.

All this while they are armed at public cost and authorized to use force on behalf of the state.

This is a recipe for ... well ... rogue cops preying on the people they're supposed to assist.

Who watches the watchmen?

Video surveillance and other forms of close scrutiny can help to keep the cops under scrutiny, but they can't rein in watchmen who have gained too much authority over their employers. The only solution is for people to take back much of the responsibility for their own safety, and treat police as hired help that needs to be watched with a close eye.

Oh, and the "narcotics" raids those Philadelphia cops used as a pretext for robbing bodegas? They busted the shops for selling ziplock bags -- little ones -- which they called "drug paraphernalia." That's the sort of petty regulation that exists for one reason alone -- to give out-of-control watchmen one more lever over the public they supposedly serve.



OpenID Corey said...

"...The only solution is for people to take back much of the responsibility for their own safety...

Well said.

March 27, 2009 1:50 AM  

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