Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Watching The Police: Do You See What I See?


slate |  Someone says he’s bleeding from his ear. Have you just watched an old man die? Is he dying?
For this subset of people, many of whom seem to be in the process of radicalizing, any one of these dozens of videos can become the occasion for a deep dive that unravels most of the assumptions that have shielded police from widespread scrutiny. Take the Buffalo incident: The viewer sees a tall, thin, older man walking toward a group of police officers. He’s wearing a blue sweater. The cops are in short-sleeved shirts and gloves. There are some forbiddingly decorative concrete spheres in the scene, of the sort one might find outside a conference center; the viewer will learn at some point that this is all happening in Buffalo, New York, where, the day before, this very group of officers knelt with protesters in a moving celebration of communal harmony. 

The Buffalo Police Department Emergency Response Team—as you, hypothetical white viewer, eventually learn they’re called—is carrying batons and wearing helmets. The tall old man holds what looks like a police helmet in his left hand. In his right he holds what looks like a phone. As with so many of these videos, you can’t quite hear. This is worrying: You believe in getting all the context. But the first lesson of this mess is that context is a luxury. Like the protesters, like minorities pulled over for a traffic stop, like police, even, the only information you have is what’s in front of you. What you see is this: The old man seems to address the officers briefly, reaching toward one and tapping his arm with his phone. The officer who received the taps reacts as if he’s been stung and shoves the old man hard. The old man falls directly backward, out of the scene. There is an awful sound. The camera pulls back. The man lies on the cement with a dark fluid pooling under his head. His right hand, which is still holding the telephone, gives up; you watch the phone fall as it goes limp. 

Someone says, He’s bleeding from his ear. Have you just watched an old man die? Is he dying? The officer (who knows no more than you do) looks briefly concerned and walks on. Another officer starts to bend toward the man; he is stopped by his colleagues. They walk on. The man bleeds.
Context will come in time, and it will not make this better. You will read that the Buffalo Police Department reported this incident as an injury incurred when one person at the protest “tripped and fell.” Only when the news team that captured this circulates the footage will the public realize that the record has been falsified. Buffalo Police Cpt. Jeff Rinaldo will say there was no deception at all, just an honest mistake. “How the situation was being observed, it was being observed from a camera that was mounted behind the line of officers,” he says. “The initial information, it appears the subject had tripped and fallen while the officers were advancing.” He will congratulate the police on how quickly they corrected the record. “There is no attempt to mislead,” Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown will say of the police statement, echoing Rinaldo. 

You want to believe there was no attempt to mislead. But something is off. The “initial information” about the incident, you realize, should obviously have come from Buffalo Police Cpt. Jeff Rinaldo’s officers. Not some camera, no matter where it was. In calling an obvious cover-up a mistake, both the mayor and the police captain are acting as if it’s a given that not one of the 14 law enforcement officers you saw in that video—who witnessed what happened—could be counted upon, let alone expected, to tell the truth. Rinaldo speaks in a language so wrenched by adherence to the passive voice that it barely sounds like English: The situation was being observed … the initial information, it appears

You’ve heard of the “blue wall of silence”—the anti-snitch code whereby police protect each other from accountability to the public. But maybe you thought it was more a Hollywood invention than a plague sickening American towns. Evidence for it, and evidence for rampant dishonesty by police unaccustomed to being doubted or questioned, is mounting. You read, for example, that police reported that $2.4 million in Rolexes were looted from a store in SoHo, even though the store spokesman said, “no watches of any kind were stolen, as there weren’t any on display in the store.” You start to wonder about other police reports on looting. Maybe you’ll think back to last week, an age ago now, when protesters and journalists were beaten and tear-gassed in Lafayette Park so Trump could pose in front of a church. The following day, the U.S. Park Police strenuously denied using tear gas at all. If you’re unusually attentive, you might also remember that Park Police walked that denial back several days later, citing confusion over whether pepper balls counted as tear gas (they do).

Never mind: You’re trying to focus on this one case in Buffalo, and the next steps matter: The Buffalo Police Department suspends two officers without pay while an investigation is conducted. Most regard this as the bare minimum since the principal offenders—who you now know are named Aaron Torgalski and Robert McCabe—not only assaulted an old man but might have lied to their superiors about it. Maybe you’re relieved there’s a modicum of accountability. That relief quickly dissolves. It emerges that Torgalski and McCabe’s colleagues find this minimal consequence outrageous: The day after the two officers’ suspension, 57 members of the Buffalo Police Department’s Emergency Response Team resign from the team (though not the police force—they remain employed there) to support their two colleagues. They believe the men who shoved an old man to the ground are being treated abusively. “Our position is these officers … were simply doing their job. I don’t know how much contact was made. He did slip in my estimation. He fell backwards,” said Buffalo Police Benevolent Association president John Evans. Before you can pause and really take this in—he did slip in my estimation—the Buffalo Police Union will post on its website, “These guys did nothing but do what they were ordered to do. This is disgusting !!!”

Maybe, as a hypothetical white American who’s always had good relations with police, you are shocked to find the police union excusing obvious misconduct as “just following orders” and doubling down on the lie that the man slipped. You’ve heard that police lie, but it’s being driven home to you differently now that your attention is focused. You’re watching the lies happen in real time. You saw, with George Floyd’s death, that Minneapolis police initially reported he “appeared to be suffering medical distress”—a curious way of saying a man was asphyxiated. The original statement Minneapolis police spokesman John Elder chose to send reporters read “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.” That’s all we would have known about George Floyd’s death had it not been for the brave teenager who recorded it in real time. The revelation isn’t that the lies are new. It’s that they’re everywhere.