And the President of the United States of America exclaimed: “When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough. I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice.’”
In life, we often have to look closely to see past the bluster to determine the difference between perception and reality. Some freak out over the smallest perceived slight—the fragile snowflake. Others think disorder leads to a restoration of greatness—the Gary Snowflake (or rambling provocateur).
When it comes to law enforcement, are we in a world where supporting the men and women in uniform and demanding police accountability are mutually exclusive? I don’t think so. Many of us are confused and frustrated; we just want equal accountability.
While the lives of brave officers certainly matter, so do their ethics.
The law enforcement profession is full of heroes. It is full of people who don’t see race when making decisions about criminal justice. It’s loaded with men and women who run toward danger, rather than away. Look no further than Jeremy Mason, who literally took a bullet to the face to make Jacksonville safer. After getting shot, he continued pursuing the suspect. I applaud Mason from the core of my being.
It also has its fair share of those who abuse their power. We’ve seen examples of officers who not only have disdain in their hearts, but boast about it as if it makes them even more heroic than those out there serving respectfully. And the president just gave them all a pat on the back and justification for unconstitutional behavior.
In my law practice, I’ve seen my share of bad police behavior. Where do I start? How about the Daytona officer I deposed for six hours who said he has never encountered someone who wasn’t a “bad guy”? Or the officer in Ft. Pierce who shot and killed a man through his closed garage door, over loud music. Or my office making a 30-pronged request from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and getting a $314,000 bill based on one item within it, instead of an invoice which had already been prepared saying I could pay about $1,000 and get the other 29 items I asked for? Victims should not need to say “please” or jump through subjective hoops to get public records from those who harm them.
Look no further than Tim James, who still is employed by JSO despite social media posts like “Someone just learned a hard lesson about showing your a-- in Jacksonville. 3 felonies 2 misdemeanors and an a--whooping to boot. Lol. I love my job.” And another post saying, “Yep It’s that kinda night already. Someone’s getting a size 13 boot to the a-- tonight. I can feel it.” His threats and violations of human rights would not be acceptable in an accountable society.
Recently, our client, a handcuffed 17-year-old, reported being punched and permanently scarred by Officer James while another officer watched. Before that, Officer James ran over and killed another client. Accident? Maybe. Our client’s fault? Possibly. Yet his family requested videos and other evidence more than a month ago, and still we wait. Yes, Officer James was arrested for the “unlawful touching” of someone in his custody—but he faces no significant criminal charge, he has no mugshot on JSO’s Facebook page (unlike clients who have been arrested for protesting or simply painting traffic boxes), there has been no immediate release of records or video to the alleged victims and, of course, there was no apology.
JSO can control the narrative about their own employees and seem to bend over backward to give the media their version. For instance, when Mayra Martinez was repeatedly punched by another JSO officer at the jail, we asked for the video immediately. But first, JSO released it to its YouTube page. This shows you the kinds of “hits” some officers are more focused on.
While my desire to dissect not just law enforcement, but the enforcement of laws, came before the president’s words encouraging violence against those innocent until proven guilty, his statements reiterated that there is clear acceptance and celebration of police brutality from the top down. There shouldn’t be. Call me a snowflake, but this is not OK. And it’s doing nothing to foster trust in those who not only feel wronged by the criminal justice system, but are clearly victims of it. Shootings and crime, discord and strife exist in part because of this “us” versus “them” mentality and because the “them” (the police) aren’t held to the same standard as “us” (the people).
So far, Jacksonville’s leadership stands mostly complacent on the president’s statement and the meaningful opportunity to talk about “blue ethics.” I’ve seen one tweet from the mayor which disappeared minutes later. Sheriff Mike Williams told WJCT that the president’s comments could negatively impact police relations—then implied that JSO is getting it right, reportedly saying,
“I encourage people to look locally at what we do here, and I think our actions speak much louder than any comment made out of anybody in D.C.” It’s JSO’s action—and inaction—exhibited by multiple officer arrests, questionable hiring and retention policies and subjective enforcement that makes the need to actually speak about it crucial.
We need honest, vocal leadership on this issue and an oath that more will be done. The Florida Bar will take my license to practice if I abuse clients, just as your employer will fire you if you threaten to harm a customer or co-worker. Yet we see example after example of rules being different when the sheriff’s office is investigating one of its own.
Officers need to be accountable for and to each other, as do neighborhoods. Blue ethics matter. Look no further than the words of the president. When the men and women of law enforcement can stand up like a school teacher who lives next to a drug dealer and report bad acts by other officers, when officers who use force and intimidation as an unnecessary first resort are held as accountable as someone selling a bag of weed, we can then all say we are measured the same. But we are far from that right now.
Saying these things and having these concerns does not make us anti-law enforcement. In fact, it makes us pro the enforcement of laws. There can be no double standard.
Phillips is an attorney and local activist.