News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to MinneKota@gmail.com

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Disrespecting the police in the hinterland


As a newspaper reporter and editor, I never had the police as a regular beat.  But I often filled in for regular police beat reporters, and dealt with the police often on an investigation team of which I was a part.  When interrogating suspects in the investigation of crimes, police often play the roles of good-cop, bad-cop.  In reality, outside the role-playing, there are good cops and bad cops.  And there are times when police departments give in to the temptation of corruption.  JT,  the managing editor of the last newspaper I worked for and a longtime city beat reporter, said police corruption had about a ten-year cycle, when crooked cops came to light.

The corruption involved bribes and pay offs, not police killings and racial harassment—although those things did happen.  Shootings by police did not become common until police departments began to form SWAT teams, which put police into combat roles.  Up until that time, police regarded themselves more as peace officers with armed conflict a comparative rarity.  They did not face as much danger from shootings because gun laws were much stricter and the police did not encounter as many people who were armed as is common now.  The combat role of police emerged as necessary when they began to encounter the use of military-type automatic firearms used in the commission of crimes. 

I witnessed a number of police scandals over the years.  One night a vice team of officers composed of county sheriff deputies and city police raided a brothel in Rock Island, Ill.  The whorehouse was such an institution in the town that it was nominated for inclusion as a  historic site.  When the madam was taken to the police station and allowed her telephone call, the person she called was the chief of police at his home.  She said, Claude, you know we are supposed to have a warning before police raid our place.  That’s what we pay you guys for. 

Needless to say, Claude was not the chief of police much longer.  He went into the antique business.

My first encounter with police corruption was as a student reporter on a university student newspaper in Chicago.  The editor was an ex-Marine Korean War veteran going to school on the G.I. Bill.  An acquaintance of his was arrested at a basketball game for soliciting a prostitute.  The acquaintance said he had been approached by a woman who asked for a cigarette light and he found himself taken into custody by the police.  He was asked to post a hefty bond, which he did to the police, not to a court.  He was told that his court date could be foregone, if he wanted.  The incident motivated the editor to investigate the situation and see if the police had an organized extortion system.  A mentor for the student newspaper was a Pulitzer-winning reporter for the Chicago Daily News, who helped us find more victims of the scam.

One was an Ohio businessman who was arrested at the Lincoln Park Flower Conservatory, when a woman approached him and engaged in a conversation.  He posted a bond and was given a court date.  He returned from Ohio with a lawyer to keep his court date.  When they  got to the court, they found he was not listed on the schedule, there was no record for his arrest, nor any record of the bond he posted. 

We found other victims who had been arrested in the men’s room of the basketball arena for making homosexual approaches to other men.  At that time, it was a felony in Illinois law for being homosexual.  Bonds were readily posted.  The young student reporters, however, were able to work with some of the scam victims to identify the police officers involved, and that led to a series of stories in the student newspaper that exposed the scam and sparked a purging of the offending officers from their jobs.  Actually, most of them were merely transferred to a different precinct.  However, the stories alerted a Chicago watchdog group, the Better Government Association, to the scam, and brought the department under public scrutiny.

Police departments throughout the nation have histories of corruption and malfeasance which form the backdrop for the concerns and protests over the killing of unarmed people, particularly of African American men. The New York Police Department in its petulant dissing of Mayor DeBlasio is earning the contempt of many people who have experienced and witnessed crookedness or unwarranted violence and oppression on the part of the police. Department members are angry that the Mayor has listened to the complaints of citizens and has been tolerant of demonstrations in which citizens have protested the actions of the police, particularly in the deaths of unarmed citizens.  The police turn their petulant backs on the Mayor rather than face up to the problem actions some of their fellow officers have done that have created distrust and even contempt of the police.  Rather than work with elected officials to confront and correct their problems, the police want to be praised as heroes who put their lives on the line everyday to serve and protect the public.  Their real problem is that too much of the public do not see heroes, but see bullies who are only protecting and serving their inflated and often corrupted egos. 

 The bad attitudes toward the police extend to the hinterlands in places such as Aberdeen.  Devious and incompetent police actions taint the entire justice system.  Prosecutors and judges go to court with evidence of questionable integrity because of they way it was handled by police. 

In recent years, I have spent quite a bit of time monitoring court proceedings.  These proceedings have largely involved matters concerning judicial intervention into religious matters, such as disputes in Hutterite colonies,  Indian reservations, and cases in which South Dakota’s laws that permit government secrecy are involved.  I came across a comparatively minor case involving assault charges against an individual in which evidence provided by the police was disputed.  The state’s attorney and the defense attorney chose to ignore the dispute of evidence.  The defendant in the case was convinced by the defense attorney that going to trial would be so expensive that the defendant could not come up with the money and that it would damage the family involved.

I have often worked with wrongful conviction projects in checking out information and court actions.  In that assault case, I recognized that it was a classic example of how wrongful convictions are made.  The defendant, because of financial reasons, took a plea bargain to a lesser charge, although he contended the testimony supplied by the police was false.

This case led to an examination of other cases that came to the attention of wrongful conviction organizations.  Many young people, we found, have pled guilty to minor offenses because they could not afford the price of a trial, and court appointed attorneys do not think a full-scale defense is worth the money the courts provide them. 



One night I was in an emergency room with a child that had developed a dangerously high temperature.  That night, EMTs rushed in with a young woman who had overdosed.  The police were there trying to get evidence of what drug the woman had taken and where she got it from. The ER physician was getting very agitated.  He finally told the EMTs to “get those fucking idiots out of here so we can do our jobs.”

There is a consequence to this situation.  Most of the young people we have interviewed in Aberdeen regard the police force as a gang that is claiming turf over which it wants to rule.  They respond with derision to the idea that the police have any connection to the administration of justice.  They feel that the police are a force they need protection from, not which protects them.

Police say they feel betrayed by President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder.  They ignore how much of the public feels betrayed by them.  It is not just the killing of unarmed citizens that shape the public’s perception;  it is the multitude of miscarriages of justice in less publicized incidents and the history of corruption that clings to many police departments.

I have many friend who have been law enforcement officers.  In Aberdeen, the shooting death of a professor on the NSU campus involved the resignation of one of the investigating officers.  Most of the friends I have who were police officers have resigned because of the internal politics of their departments and the taint of corruption that fellow officers cast upon those who were trying to be upstanding. 

In South Dakota, the cases that earn the suspicion and mistrust of law enforcement are those such as the malicious prosecution and false accusations involved in the Taliaferro-Schwab case and the refusal of the Attorney General to release the investigative record in the death of Richard Benda. 

If the police want respect and support, they need to earn it.  To earn it, the good officers will have to help weed out the bad, not whine petulantly that they feel betrayed.  Instead, they have decided to castigate officials who have bothered to listen to the citizens’ reasons for mistrust and disrespect. 

The whining from the police departments, instead of efforts at reform, merely deepens the suspicion and mistrust that the departments have earned over time.  They could remedy the public disrespect by facing the killings and miscarriages of justice their fellow officers have wrought  and by showing some respect for those they are supposed to serve. 

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States

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