Quite a few years ago I served on a jury in the federal court in Denver in which a charge known as “violation of civil rights under color of law” was being prosecuted against a correction officer in the supermax in Florence.
The charge arose when officers were clearing prisoners from one cell block to another because of certain security concerns. In one particular cell, a prisoner (a middle-aged black man with a long, relatively nonviolent criminal record) displayed physical resistance and was taken down in his cell by four officers (if memory serves correctly) in order to handcuff his hands behind him.
As was regulation at the time, such cell block prisoner removal was videotaped by a corrections officer standing outside the cell. In this case, one of the officers involved in securing control of the prisoner applied force around the head and neck area that was against federal law as pertained to prisoners in federal penitentiaries (and perhaps more generally).
Without going into lengthy detail, the verdict was guilty. Testifying for the US government was the officer doing the videotaping, a cell block supervisor who witnessed the event and physicians in the medical ward to which the prisoner was transported.
Testifying for the defense? The victim — the prisoner. Don’t ask me. This should be the topic of a book describing and quantifying the mental capacities of the prisoners we put behind bars.
I think of this case when I read about charges of unnecessary force and unwarranted killings lodged against all levels of law enforcement — seemingly a daily event in our 24/7 news cycle. I have friends here and in other states whom I knew well many years ago while they were serving as law enforcement officers, some in high positions of authority. Something has changed. Regulations, training, screening of applicants, case reviews?
Whatever, the respect we have for law enforcement officers is in danger and for reasons they, and not the rest of us, control. I have had my own bad experience with a law enforcement officer who manufactured his own evidence and lied under oath in a minor traffic violation in which his testimony (with no witnesses) was accepted by the judge.
Bad experiences we have with those we hold in positions of authority over us tend to become generalized. The continual drumbeat of law enforcement transgressions only re-enforce a perception that those who we rely on to enforce our laws and keep us safe are in fact no different than those from whom we seek protection.
I don’t hear or read about charges of violation of civil rights under color of law cases these days, although they may go to court under a different legal title.
There will be leaders of the law enforcement community that will read this letter, including those at the state level.