Friday, September 4, 2009

Talk about your police department vs. fire department rivalry!

In the wake of the recent "disorderly conduct" arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates after a confrontation with a police officer, noted civil libertarian Harvey Silverglate wrote in Forbes, "There is a serious problem in this country: Police are overly sensitive to insults from those they confront." Right he was -- but even Silverglate can't have anticipated the shooting of a man in Jericho, Arkansas, for objecting in court, to a traffic ticket.

Don Payne, the assistant fire chief, was in court for the second time that day, on August 27, for traffic tickets, and vocally objected to Judge Tonya Alexander over the speed traps maintained by the seven-officer police force in the town of (according to various reports) between 150 and 175 people. Police officers in the courtroom apparently took offense to Payne's criticism. Report's MyFoxMemphis:

Investigators say even though Payne was unarmed one of the police officers pulled out his weapon and fired, hitting Payne in the back and a fellow officer in the finger.

The Associated Press says that seven officers were in court that day -- which suggests the town's entire force had turned out.

The shooting has drawn international attention, and the local police force has, at least temporarily, been disbanded as a result of the incident. Payne is in the hospital recovering after the removal of a .40 -caliber bullet from his hip. Not everybody seems to appreciate the seriousness of the matter, though. Prosecutor Lindsey Fairley told the AP that no felony charges are contemplated against the officer, but that Payne may face a misdemeanor charge.

There's plenty to be said about the town of Jericho, which is so obviously being run as a racket that Thomas Martin, chief investigator for the Crittenden County Sheriff's Department, tells the AP, "You can't even get them to answer a call because normally they're writing tickets."

Jericho cops even go so far as to park their vehicles out of town at sheriff's department facilities, so that town residents won't vandalize the cars in retaliation.

But Jericho isn't so much a special case as an extreme case, and an illustration of the importance of training law-enforcement officials to understand that they're no more immune to argument or criticism than are car mechanics or physicians. In Jericho, police officers took the same umbrage at criticism as did Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley, the man who arrested Professor Gates. But since the Cambridge city government isn't completely out of control and hasn't given its employees completely free rein, Crowley confined himself to punishing Gates's harsh words with handcuffs and a disorderly conduct charge. The important fact here is that, even in Cambridge, a public official felt entitled to punish verbal opposition.

That sense of entitlement, set loose, logically results, in extreme cases, in incidents like the shooting in Jericho. If it's OK to punish criticism, then public officials with short tempers will frequently resort to the harshest measures tolerated by the local culture. That's offensive when the punishment involves the humiliation and expense of an arrest. It's potentially lethal in a completely perverted political culture, like that prevailing in Jericho, Arkansas.

So even if you're not a free-speech absolutist, it should be clear why it's never OK for powerful public officials to punish criticism. We don't want to normalize the idea that government employees can penalize their critics, if only so we aren't confronted with police officers opening fire on their antagonists in crowded courtrooms.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

i remember a time when shooting an unarmed man in the back was considered the ultimate mark of a coward. it sickens me to see things like this. these guys are nothing more than thugs with badges.

September 6, 2009 9:19 AM  

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