Sometimes police do something “off the hook”. Then what?

Seattle cop maces passerbys with no visible threat picture credit : Seattle International Socialist Organization
Seattle police mace passersby with no visible threat.picture credit : Seattle International Socialist Organization

Anyone who has been reading this blog since the start knows that I will always be the first one to support police. Not just because I was in the business for nearly 22 years but I believe that the majority of police officers are fine, upstanding citizens and day in and day out put their own personal safety on the line for people they don’t know.  They do an extremely difficult job under the most chaotic conditions and many times deal with the absolute worst parts of the human race and have to do so following a litany of local, state, and federal laws and regulations while bad guys don’t follow any laws when they are terrorizing law abiding citizens. They should be respected just for the fact that they chose a profession as a law enforcement first responder with the intent on keeping our neighborhoods safe so we can freely move about our business with some piece of mind knowing that chaos doesn’t rule the street.

Thus, whenever police-related incidents occur and become newsworthy, I of course will naturally react with a personal bias in favor of the police under the guise that they were doing the right thing and we do not have enough facts or the entire story to start to judge what they did was right or wrong. The media and many times the general public will not wait for all the facts and circumstances to come out but make a snap judgement about the whole scenario and immediately look to fault the cops for something and be standing by in some cases with torches ready to light something up. That is not really fair in my opinion and cooler heads should prevail until ALL the facts DO come out so we can ALL then make a well thought out opinion and then start asking questions or demanding accountability.

However.

I have not and would not ever speak in front of a group of people and pretend that ALL police officers are gems or infallible or deny that in some cases are completely off the hook and do some crazy things. In nearly 22 years with the NYPD, just when I thought I had heard some crazy story about internal affairs locking up some cop for some bizarre craziness they got themselves into ( many times off duty ), then another moron would come along and do something crazier. People sometimes forget that police officers are people. They are not robots. They are not amoebaos. They are living, breathing humans just like you and I. So regardless of the fact they get months and months of training, sometimes things go awry and the training may not kick in fully and then you have to rely on when their “don’t do that stupid bullshit” alarm goes off. Luckily most cops are level headed, thinking individuals, but some are not. Some also may have an extreme amount of stress going on in their lives and now this incident just happens to be the trigger that makes them snap. Some are going along life just fine but then someone takes a swing at them and they lose it. I am not making excuses for this behavior, I am stating a simple fact based on countless incidents I would see unfold throughout my time in the NYPD, and the same holds true across police departments around the United States.

So while I have been and always will be a staunch advocate of the police I will also have been one of the first ones to call shenanigans when I see an incident that looks like it is out of bounds. The recent incident in Seattle where one of the bicycle officers is screaming like a lunatic ( pictured above) and indiscriminately starts pepper spraying passersby after the conclusion of a MLK event may be one of them. It seems based on all accounts known and reported to date ( and a video gone viral ), that there didn’t seem to be any immediate threat to the officers present on that corner and when she raised the canister of pepper spray people actually did start to back away. The 2 people she started spraying at almost point blank range were actually walking away when she unloaded a nice blast of it. Now of course I was not there and perhaps she was reacting to something else but so far I have not heard anything to support that and this just may be a case of an officer snapping and temporarily overstepping her need for necessary force other than vocal commands.

In New York City an officer was indicted this week by the Brooklyn District Attorney for an incident that happened last July in Harlem where in the video (around the 1:41 mark) you can clearly see a man resisting arrest and physically struggling with officers. At one point they finally get the offender to the ground and one of the original officers in the confrontation is seen on the video walking away,then returning and allegedly kicks or steps on the head of the offender who is on the ground and secured by other officers.

So what happens if you have an interaction with a police officer and you feel your rights were violated and / or the officer used excessive force or did something completely illegal? What I would not suggest is fighting back in a physical or weapons based confrontation at that moment in the street because you will very likely lose that battle and possibly become seriously injured or killed. While police are trained to preserve human life whenever possible, they are also trained to use whatever force is necessary to get that situation under control so officer safety is maximized. Law abiding officers so not want non-law abiding officers among them. This I feel very secure saying because I’ve seen it in action. It makes a bad name for those of us who put in years and years of exemplary service to have it marred when some idiot decides to go on their own personal quest and cause havoc when none was needed. It unravels years of good police-community relations in a matter of minutes.

In most jurisdictions I have seen, at least certainly in NYC, a police officer is mandated by regulations to give you their name and shield number upon you requesting it. Many times that will happen and many times it won’t. So now you want to make a complaint on that officer and you don’t have their name and shield number. Now what ? We now live in a digital world. More and more people are capturing police related incidents on cell phone or video cameras, so video or audio evidence of an interaction is certainly welcome by investigators. Police body cams is still a relatively new happening and it will take a long time before all cops are outfitted with them. Sometimes videos don’t tell the whole story because the video may start during or after an incident has already occurred so credible eye witnesses are helpful to fill in some of those gaps. Not those with a hell bent vengeance and wild hair to see police suffer but those every day folks who can give credible testimony in an investigation. Of course jotting down the simple things like the time, date, location, the description of what the officers looked like and the jurisdiction/ town/ city and patrol car number of the car they were driving. If they were “undercover cops” then the color, make, model and license plate of the vehicle they were driving and a description of what they looked like, how many there were, and their clothing.

Ideally you should be able to walk into any precinct or police station to make a complaint about an officer from that jurisdiction. Some feel comfortable doing that and some do not. Some police departments may have an anonymous tip line for internal affairs or information online on where to go or who to call. Some people who are either not comfortable going into their local precinct or don’t trust their local police to police themselves will go to other entities to file their grievance. That may be a local county, or state district attorney. They might do directly to the federal level ( FBI or Department of Justice ) which is fine as well. The media is always an option because not only are they always looking for a juicy story but they can bring instant attention to a situation that may need it and light a fire under some asses that may not have moved as quickly without the spot light thrown on them. Of course you could also go to an attorney before, during and after to see if you have enough to file suit for damages. Some attorneys have made a healthy living suing police since many municipalities will settle out of court for damages either way instead of fighting a long protracted battle in civil court.

There will be some cops that may not like me posting this diatribe about what your options are when confronted with an officer who has acted in an unprofessional manner or was out right off the hook with their behavior and now you want to hold them accountable by way of a complaint. I am not bothered by those guys because to me it speaks to their own professional standing or integrity, because why would you want to work with officers who are not treating people professionally and even worse are over stepping their boundaries? That makes it harder for the next officer to deal with that person(s) in the next interaction and may put them in danger. Active cops are going to get complaints, many times from the bad guys they arrest but you can be an aggressive crime fighter and a good community minded officer at the same time.There is enough danger out there and cops don’t need to create it, they need to stop it.

For as much as I may advocate reporting the bad apples which have infiltrated our police departments across the country, I also absolutely advocate citizens THANKING their local police for making every attempt for keeping themselves and their families and friends safe. A simple thank you for your service goes a long way with alot of people and is appreciated on different levels.

About Tom Verni

As a retired NYPD Detective with nearly 22 years of experience as a Community Policing Officer, Certified Police Academy Instructor, City-Wide Community Affairs Liaison, and Crime Prevention Specialist, Tom Verni has a wide breadth of public speaking experience and extensive knowledge in various aspects of police training and community relations. He is now able to pass along this knowledge to law enforcement or other organizations seeking to enhance the skill sets of their personnel via training seminars. Tom is also available to media outlets for consulting services regarding crime issues or police related incidents.

6 thoughts on “Sometimes police do something “off the hook”. Then what?

  1. What’s up Tom! I just read the lastest edition of ‘Off Beat Cop”. I throughly enjoyed it and agreed with the majority of your article. Continue the great work and give a brother a call when you have the time.

  2. What’s up Tom! I just read the latest edition of your blog. I enjoyed it and agreed with the majority of your article. I want you to continue the great work and give a brother a call when you get a chance.

    From,

    Ralph Davis

  3. Tom, can we get a fresh take from you on officers who become unhinged, especially in light of the charges against six Baltimore PD officers?

    1. Yes, I will have a couple of posts ( which I am a little behind on ) coming up about the baltimore thing specifically and a new nationwide training course geared to address cops of every rank in policing.