Rogue Cops: a few bad apples or a rotten barrel?
The shocking cruelty of police towards a serial killer's rape victim
by Perry Bulwer
Last week I started watching the TV series, The Wire. Yes, I know I'm several years late, but that's how I watch TV these days. I wait for a series to conclude, then obtain the entire series to view at my leisure rather than conforming to broadcast schedules. It is also much easier to remember characters and plot lines from episode to episode and season to season that way. So far I've only watched the first four episodes of season one, but even though those episodes aired in 2004 they still seem freshly ripped from today's headlines.
I am thinking particularly of the depiction of incompetent, violent police officers and their corrupt superiors. Of course, such depictions are nothing new, corrupt cops being a popular Hollywood trope, but the real rogues are often worse than those fictional ones. The Rodney King incident in 1991 helped illustrate that fact in a way that was impossible for the police to cover-up. Police brutality and abuse of authority are as old as policing itself, of course, but until the advent of video technology they always had a way to cover up their crimes through collusion. They still do that today, but it is much harder when there is video evidence often taken by witnesses. That type of evidence of police brutality has greatly increased now that most citizens carry cell phone cameras with them. However, instead of dealing with the problem of rogue cops who abuse their powers, law enforcement officials seem determined to criminalize filming police in public places.
What's good for the police apparently isn't good for the people -- or so the law enforcement community would have us believe when it comes to surveillance.
That's a concise summary of a new trend first reported by National Public Radio last week -- the trend whereby law enforcement officials have been trying to prevent civilians from using cellphone cameras in public places as a means of deterring police brutality.
Oddly, the effort -- which employs both forcible arrests of videographers and legal proceedings against them -- comes at a time when the American Civil Liberties Union reports that "an increasing number of American cities and towns are investing millions of taxpayer dollars in surveillance camera systems."
Then again, maybe it's not odd that the two trends are happening simultaneously. Maybe they go hand in hand. Perhaps as more police officers use cameras to monitor every move we make, they are discovering the true power of video to independently document events. And as they see that power, they don't want it turned against them.
Law enforcement officials, of course, don't like the cellphone cameras because they don't want any check on police power. So they've resorted to fear-mongering allegations about lost lives. But the only police officers who are threatened by cellphone cameras are those who want to break civil liberties laws with impunity. The rest have nothing to worry about and everything to gain from a practice that simply asks them to remember the all-too-forgotten part of their "protect and serve" motto -- the part about protecting the public's civil rights.
In some jurisdictions, such as California, the law already shields violent police officers. Here's an excerpt from a recent investigative report there:
March 21, 2009, was one of the bloodiest days in the history of the Oakland Police Department and California law enforcement.
[Sgt. Patrick] Gonzales would emerge from the day’s dramatic violence as a department hero; some colleagues nicknamed him “Audie Murphy,” the most decorated American soldier of World War II. But to many in the black and Latino neighborhoods Gonzales polices today, he has long been known as something else: a loose cannon. During Gonzales’ 13-year career he has shot four suspects, three fatally. “He’s left a trail of victims in his wake,” says Cathy King, the mother of one of Gonzales’ shooting victims, “but he’s [considered] a valued member of the police department.”
Multiple lawsuits alleging wrongful death, excessive force, illegal searches and racial profiling incidents involving Gonzales have resulted in $3.6 million paid by the city in settlement money. Law enforcement experts say he fits the profile of the “bad apple” minority in OPD that is responsible for most of the allegations of brutality that plague its relationship with the city’s communities of color. And the Board of Inquiry report on the bloody events of March 21, 2009, places significant blame for the carnage on Gonzales’ decisions.
Yet, Gonzales has been consistently promoted and deployed into sensitive situations throughout his career, and without public outcry. That’s because few know about either his record or his promotions. His extensive personnel file is today off-limits to the public, thanks to a dramatic rollback in the transparency of law enforcement records following a California Supreme Court ruling five years ago. The 2006 decision, in Copley Press v. Superior Court of San Diego, effectively classified all records of individual law enforcement officers, even those employed by contractors.
The arc of Gonzales’ career, from a patrol officer in the Eastlake neighborhood to a sergeant on the SWAT team at the heart of one of OPD’s darkest days, tells the story of a department’s broken accountability system, now pushed behind a wall of secrecy.
I do not buy the "bad apple" argument. If Gonzales was merely a bad apple, why did he keep getting promoted? If he was a bad apple, so were his superiors, which suggests the entire barrel was rotten. There are just too many cases of police misconduct (I'm referring to the U.S. and Canada) for it to be a matter of a few corrupt cops. The problem is rooted in police culture and training. I do not know how else to explain the brutal behaviour of Ontario police towards a woman bound, beat and raped by a serial killer.
A woman who was bound and sexually assaulted by her then-neighbour, Col. Russell Williams, says the police left her tied up for five hours after responding to her 911 call.
Laurie Massicotte says Ontario Provincial Police officers told her they had to leave her in the harness, fashioned by Williams, until an OPP photographer arrived to take pictures of her in the restraint.
"I was left for five hours, still in my harness, still tied up, naked, lying under a comforter," Massicotte, 47, told the Ottawa Citizen in a telephone interview Friday.
"Five hours, no medical attention. I was in total shock. I didn't know what the heck was going on."
The OPP, she said, treated her like a criminal in the early hours of the investigation.
One officer told her neighbour, Massicotte said, that police suspected she was trying to "copycat" what happened to another sexual assault victim in Tweed, Ont., 12 days earlier.
"It was really, really, really bad," she said.
Massicotte was blindfolded and bound. Her clothes were cut from her with a knife. She was forced to pose while Williams took photos.
The ordeal lasted 3 1/2 hours. Williams left her in a makeshift straitjacket — her arms were cinched to her sides — but she still managed to dial 911.
The police told her she would have to stay in the restraint until the ident unit arrived. When photos were finally taken five hours later, Massicotte said she was then allowed to put on a bathrobe, and taken outside for three more hours while police combed her house for evidence.
She went through a lengthy interrogation before an OPP officer "finally confessed to me that this similar situation happened 12 days ago and we didn't warn anybody about it."
After the incident, Massicotte said she felt violated and terrorized by Williams — and "betrayed" by the police. She said she now suffers from post-traumatic stress and anxiety.
To recap, Laurie was tied up, beaten, and raped for 3 1/2 hours by a serial rapist and killer. When police arrived an obviously traumatized Laurie was left naked and tied up for 5 more hours because they did not believe she was a victim, but instead thought she was a criminal. Then when they finally untied her she was forced to wait another 3 hours outside while police continued their investigation. So, her rapist abused her for 3 1/2 hours, but the police abused her for 8 hours. But that was not the final indignity. Not only did the police think she was faking her own assault, they had failed to warn her that a similar attack had occurred just two weeks earlier. That failure in their duty of care to Laurie will be one of the claims in her lawsuit against the police force.
So, is that a case of a few bad cops, or an indication of a systemic failure in police training and oversight? Could those police officers really not tell the difference between a traumatized sex assault victim in shock and someone merely pretending to be? Are they trained to assume everyone they deal with is a criminal until they can prove otherwise? It certainly seems so, as the Robert Dziekański case suggests. He was the innocent Polish man killed by police tasers in the Vancouver airport. They then tried to cover up what they did by giving false evidence. It was not just the four RCMP officers involved who colluded on their evidence and tried to mislead the investigation and inquiry. An RCMP spokesperson gave a false version of events to the public before anyone was aware that a witness had taken a video of the incident. No wonder police departments want to criminalize filming the police.
Post Script: I continued this theme of police misconduct in the blog post "Sexual harassment in the RCMP and the failure to catch a serial killer" at the first link below.
Sexual harassment in the RCMP and the failure to catch a serial killer
Sexual harassment in the RCMP and the failure to catch a serial killer - continued
Aboriginal Teen May Be Charged with Assaulting RCMP Officer With Her Face