Snapshot of Systemic Police Abuse


I don’t know Temple University photojournalism major Ian Van Kuyk, despite his enrollment in Temple’s Journalism Department, where I teach.

I do know that dynamics embedded in the recent arrest of Van Kuyk by Philadelphia police–an arrest now generating news coverage nationwide–provide yet another snapshot of the systemic abuses I’ve reported and researched during three decades spent examining and documenting the lawlessness of supposed law enforcers.

I also know that police attacking civilians for lawfully photographing public spaces, police routinely employing unlawful excessive force and prosecutors too frequently turning a blind eye to such police misconduct are all nationwide problems.

These systemic abuses by police and prosecutors corrode public confidence in the justice system and cost taxpayers millions of dollars spent on settling lawsuits alleging illegalities by police. Historically, these problems receive short-shrift from most elected officials. 

Just a few days before the alleged abuse of Van Kuyk, an artist filed a federal lawsuit against a Philadelphia policeman for roughing her up when arresting her for apparently creating lawful outdoor artwork less than two miles from the Van Kuyk incident.

In January 2012, the City of Philadelphia settled another lawsuit filed against that same artist, with the arresting officer agreeing to pay a woman $30,000. She alleged that the officer had “violently manhandled” her – breaking her nose and spraining her wrist during a sidewalk encounter.

Evidence now indicates a police-prosecutor angle in the Florida fatal shooting of teen Trayvon Martin by 28-year-old George Zimmerman. 

The evidence is clear that Sanford, FL Police performed a procedurally deficient forensic investigation of that incident. 

And evidence indicates that department officials and prosecutors rejected a Sanford Police detective’s request to arrest Zimmerman for manslaughter – a management decision that appears to demonstrate less concern for victim Martin than for shooter Zimmerman, whom the evidence shows ignored police orders to not confront Martin, only to have him then claim he shot Martin in self-defense.

That incident producing the arrest of Van Kuyk and outrage from the general counsel of the National Press Photographers Association about gross violations of this young photojournalist’s First Amendment rights occurred on the warm evening of March 14, 2012.

Of course as always there are two sides: in this case the account advanced by arresting officers and accounts from Van Kuyk, his girlfriend (also arrested that night) and a few of their neighbors who witnessed the events.

The only points of agreement between the two versions are that police were questioning one of Van Kuyk’s neighbors outside the South Philadelphia apartment where Van Kuyk lived, and that the budding photojournalist began photographing that encounter.

Philadelphia police are now reinvestigating the incident in the wake of criticisms and critical news coverage. 

According to Van Kuyk, Philly Police, after demanding that he stop photographing them, and after their dismissing his First Amendment protests, snatched Van Kuyk up, slammed him to the ground, swept him off to a police station for a nearly 24-hour detention, and eventually slapped him with a slew of charges, including disorderly conduct and obstruction of justice.

Police also arrested Van Kuyk’s girlfriend, detaining her for 19-hours, also slamming her with flawed trumped-up charges. Her arrest arose from came in response to her trying to retrieve Van Kuyk’s school-issued camera.

At the core of this incident we see the Philadelphia Police failing to follow clearly stated department policy. A Philadelphia Police Department directive issued in September 2011 bars officers from arresting people for “photographing, videotaping or audibly recording police personnel [conducting] official business…in any public space.”

The “Purpose” listed on Memorandum (11-01) was to “remove any confusion as to duties and responsibilities” when police find themselves subjected to recording devices.

Given that red-line directive, police supervisors and prosecutors should have immediately pulled the plug on the charges against Van Kuyk and his girlfriend, but they didn’t. 

Prosecutors pressed the flawed-arrest-related charges against Van Kuyk’s girlfriend, extracting their pound of flesh by forcing her into a program requiring 12-hours of community service and a $200 fine in exchange for their dismissing those flawed charges.

Van Kuyk is awaiting his preliminary hearing and possible trial.

The prosecution of Van Kuyk’s girlfriend and his pending charges both are a stain on the ethical duty of prosecutors to seek justice and professional to show responsible conduct in conduct not pursuing bogus charges.

Police spokesmen proclaim that the arresting officers knew about that directive protecting First Amendment activity, but contend that “other things happened…that caused the officers to make an arrest,” according to widely reported media accounts.

The Philadelphia Police Department’s record of abusive misconduct, however, casts a dark shadow on the department’s contention that  “other things happened,” as do eyewitness accounts.

This incident involving Van Kuyk is hauntingly similar to an August 1972 incident that occurred just ten blocks from Van Kuyk’s apartment, when a minister questioning police for pummeling a man outside his house triggered a home-invasion, with police ransacking the minister’s home and arresting him, his wife, his daughter and a houseguest from Germany.

As with the Van Kuyk case, the assaulting police hit the minister, his family and houseguest with a slew of charges, including disorderly conduct and interfering with a police officer.

Philly prosecutors pressed those charges, which had been concocted to cover-up their criminal assault on the minister’s house, but a judge quickly dismissed them.

Philly’s then top prosecutor, Arlen Specter, later a US Senator and top Senate Judicial Committee member, rejected widespread demands to prosecute those offending police officers for their criminal conduct against the minister and his family.

Specter recently released a book criticizing the dysfunction in partisan politics – an ironic argument coming from someone who once shirked his ethical and professional duties by ignoring outrageous misconduct and abusive behavior by police and prosecutors.

Months after that August 1972 incident, a federal judge in Philadelphia issued a ruling in a class-action police brutality lawsuit in which he criticized arrests without probable cause and noted that those most likely to be targeted for abuse are individuals who had the audacity to challenge their initial police contact.

I guess certain abusive practices are just embedded in Philadelphia Police Department culture.

So are a 1972 incident and 1973 court ruling ancient history?

Well, that incident and court ruling illuminate the Van Kuyk incident.

Philadelphia police recently arrested a University of Pennsylvania PhD student for questioning why the homeless could not attend a hearing on about a proposed measure to outlaw providing food to the homeless in downtown Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, a Maryland man is facing a 16-year prison term for posting a video on YouTube showing a plainclothes state trooper brandishing a pistol when he stops the videographer for an alleged speeding violation.

Philadelphia prosecutors need to drop the charges against Van Kuyk and reverse the proceeding against his girlfriend.

Further, authorities nationwide need to crack down on misconduct by police and prosecutors.

Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He lives in Philadelphia. 

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