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When Police Brutality Mutates into Police Surrealism

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If a man from Mars were to visit the U.S., and observe the actions of municipal police departments, there is no way in hell he could draw the dual conclusion: (1) that cops are civil servants whose “bosses” are the citizens themselves, and (2) that it was, in fact, the citizenry who invented “cops” in the first place. Nothing in police behavior or attitude would cause a Martian to draw that conclusion.

Let us trace the antecedents all the way back to Plymouth Rock. The year is 1620. Cops weren’t brought to America, packed in ice, on the Mayflower, nor were they deposited en masse at the shoreline and given orders to go around beating up and shooting people, nor were they encouraged to treat every peaceful, law-abiding pilgrim they encountered as a potential criminal. This was “acquired” behavior.

In short, the police didn’t always see the populace as its “enemy.” The municipal police force had to have evolved into what it is today—which, in poor or minority neighborhoods is something that very closely resembles a military “occupation” force. Again, this phenomenon didn’t occur overnight. Just as bacteria is allowed to breed in a petri dish, cops were allowed to mutate, over many decades, into what they are today.

We citizens are partly to blame for this hideous transmogrification. Even the most strident “cop hater” has to know that not every country in the world allows its citizens to file formal charges against the police, and that not every country permits those formal charges to navigate their way to civil or criminal court. The U.S. is one country that does allow it.

But even when our police are put on trial, and the evidence seems overwhelming, it’s rare for juries to convict them. For a multitude of reasons, people simply find it too “extreme” or “counterproductive” to convict a cop. You hear people say stuff like, “Hey, it’s a tough job; I’d hate to be a cop.” Or, “It’s easy to second-guess someone whose life is in danger, and has to make a quick decision.”

Unfortunately, a cop taking refuge under the claim that his “life is in danger” has become the world’s largest umbrella. Consider the example of Kelly Thomas, a young, homeless man, diagnosed as schizophrenic, who, in 2011, was beaten to death by three members of the Fullerton (California) Police Department.

Because the episode was tape-recorded, and because Thomas could be heard on tape begging for his life—and because one of the officers clearly said, as he put on latex gloves and prepared to beat him, “Now see my fists? They are getting ready to fuck you up”—regular citizens (like myself) were certain these guys were going to serve time. Wrong. The jury found all three defendants Not Guilty. (“Hey, being a cop is a tough job.”)

Which brings us to Chicago police officer Robert Rialmo, who, in December 2015, intentionally shot and killed 19-year old Quintonio LeGrier, and accidentally shot and killed his neighbor, 55-year old Betty Jones, a grandmother of 10, whose only “crime,” basically, was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Incredibly, Officer Rialmo has filed a $10 million countersuit against the LeGrier family, claiming that the incident caused him to suffer severe emotional trauma. For a cop to say, with a straight face, that having to gun down a teenage boy “made him so sad,” he had no other choice but to sue the boy’s distraught family for everything they have, takes a special kind of arrogance.

While one hopes that such a disgraceful scenario could only play out in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago, that’s unlikely. Alas, “defensive” lawsuits like Rialmo’s could become a preferred tactic in the future. Prevent victims from suing the police by having the police threaten to countersue. In any event, we’ve come a long from way from Plymouth Rock. And it took us a tad less than 400 years to do it.

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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