Friday, June 16, 2006

First Abuse of the Law

Mrs. Hollywood, Lionboy Hollywood and myself were coming home from the bookstore last night, crusing in the "Space Shuttle" (a euphemism for "mini van" that helps to attenuate the stigma of the symbol of middle age bourgoisie Americain) down West Esplanade Avenue through the New Orleans suburb of Metairie. We saw several blocks of police cars preventing traffic turning north.

This morning's newspaper reveals why.

There is much here about which to be disturbed. I believe it reflects a dark underbelly of 21st century American culture, one that is rooted in a misuse of the law.

Classical Lutheran theology recognizes three uses of the law: Curb, Mirror, and Guide.

The first use ("Curb") is the civil use: police, courts, jails, the hangman, writs of habeas corpus, appeals, citations, etc. This use of law is to curb criminal conduct. While this use of the law is a state matter (not a church matter), it is still ultimately God who administers this law. Such properly used secular law is God-pleasing, as it secures a civilized and peaceful society in which people can go about their lives and the Gospel can be proclaimed by the church.

The second use ("Mirror") is the condemnation of sin for the purpose of repentence. It is embodied in the Ten Commandments - which, as Jesus interprets them in the Sermon on the Mount, are unattainable for us sinful men - and thus we are driven to the cross and to the Gospel - the good news of Jesus' sacrificial death for us that atones for our sins. This use reflects our sins, like a mirror, so that we can see the ugly truth about ourselves and repent. Are you still with me? Okay, the third use ("Guide") of the law involves the Christian seeing God's law, especially the Ten Commandments, as a guide for the sanctified Christian life.

This article concerns the first use, the civil use ("Curb"), of the law. And I think our culture is misusing the first use.

The first use of the law is primarily to protect us by curbing violence and other crimes. We Americans value (at least traditionally and according to our founding documents) individual liberties and small government. But Americans have not traditionally looked to government to protect us from every imaginable evil. There is a trade-off. Allowing Americans to freely stroll up and down the aisles of WalMart buying cheese puffs, candy bars, ice cream, and lard with no restriction means some people are going to harm themselves by getting fat. Some will even die. But (at least for the time being), we Americans would rather be subjected to this danger than the threat of a government bureaucracy and policing agency to protect us from our own grocerial bad choices. The restriction on freedom, the taxation, the red tape, and the inconvenience would be too great a price to pay for enforced physical fitness by fiat.

Similarly, and more controversially, many states now allow motorcyclists to decide for themselves whether or not to wear a helmet - even Super Bowl champion quarterbacks. Of course, right now, I would not want to speculate as to how many football fans in Pittsburgh would be willing to revoke the helmet law in Pennsylvania, if not criminalize motorcycling all together in service of the great god football.

But let's think about this poor dead guy in Metairie. He was obviously mentally ill. He was eccentric. He had political stuff on his door. But he kept to himself. He never bothered or threatened anyone. He has no criminal record whatsoever. Somehow (and we are not told), someone got an order to incarcerate him in a mental hospital. Of course, this is similar as to how rapacious, buzzardlike children and grandchildren routinely get their uncaring, money-grubbing talons into grandpa's old house or mom's back forty. We are not told who or how this order was secured.

But we do know this - this eccentric man, a Vietnam veteran, who is paranoid that the government was coming to take him by force - all of the sudden finds the government coming to his house ordering him to be arrested and taken away by force. Should we be shocked at his response? How would you react if cops came to your door with an order to remove you from your home and lock you up in an institution against your will? Let's put it a different way: when Jews were being put into camps in Nazi Germany, would anyone have faulted them for resisting - even violently? Or is the proper response to simply board the boxcars and comply without so much as a whimper?

Now if this man's relatives really wanted to help him, perhaps other methods could have been tried. He may have been able to be coaxed out of his home by some other means than the very thing he feared: heavily armed uniformed agents of the government. If they knew the man was paranoid, hated the government, and was heavily armed, how did people expect this story to end? The stupidity of this approach ("victory is our exit strategy"?) that doesn't weigh other alternatives besides busting down the doors in a sweaty testosterone- and adrenaline-laced raid in this specific case is indicative of a larger cultural problem. And if arrest was really and truly the only way to protect him and get him some help, how about nabbing him at the grocery store or post office? I mean, having the heavily armed government swarm the home of a heavily armed paranoiac who fears the government doesn't seem like the really smart strategy, now does it?

Our society has become so infatuated and enthralled with violence and force as the "final solution" for everything, absolutely everything - that it is often the first resort, not the last. Be honest. How many of you have been stopped for a minor traffic infraction, like speeding, to have been treated to a Dirty Harry impression by a chunky cop with mirrored sunglasses with delusions of Clint Eastwood?

My dad had a run-in with a young cop not too long ago that left him baffled and outraged. My father is a soft-spoken 60-something guy who has never been in any trouble with the law. He pays his taxes, keeps his yard manicured, votes in every election, and always taught his sons to respect the police and other authorities. He is also a Marine Corps veteran. One afternoon, he rode his mo-ped to the city building to pay a bill. He parked his bike and ran inside, to be told by a militant police officer that he would have to move the bike or else it would be confiscated. The cop was the stereotype macho man in dark menacing glasses, boots, and a "high-and-tight" buzzcut. He was much younger than my dad, but was extremely hostile and rude, showing no respect for an elder, let alone for an honest citizen on a little motorized bicycle who was not engaged in any criminal activity whatsoever. I mean, what is more unthreatening than a senior citizen on a mo-ped? Give me a break! Was there a danger that he was a terrorist?

My dad was pretty appalled to be treated like a juvenile delinquent by a condescending goon half his age who was dressed like a stormtrooper in this sleepy little low-crime suburb. I know that my father would have liked to have demonstrated some basic Parris Island Marine Corps hand-to-hand combat techniques (and is more than capable) on this puffed-up, snot-nosed punk, but perhaps Marines were taught self-restraint in those days. He simply moved his bike. But the police sure didn't win any goodwill points that day. Hopefully, the folks who trained him think it's worth losing respect from nice taxpaying folks like my father. I'm just not sure what the upside is.

My 70-something father-in-law in Ottawa, Canada - as mild-mannered and non-violent as any Dutch-Canadian you can imagine - was likewise recently hassled (and threatened with arrest) by menacing-looking police officers just for asking a question. Even the typically polite and less gung-ho Canadian police have gotten in on the Bruce Willis act. Modern North American police uniforms seem designed to invoke a SWAT team, hoo-rah, let's-go-blow-something-up attitude. The days of Andy Griffith de-escalating a situation with winsome gentleness and politeness are long over.

I'm sure many of you have run into similar situations.

Is this hostility and lack of respect really called for? Is civility and politeness considered weakness in the culture of law enforcement?

In my own experience as a corrections officer in the 1980s, I say "yes!" I was so appalled by many (of course, not all) of my co-workers that I sometimes preferred the company of the inmates. Some officers deliberately harassed the inmates, depriving them of sleep, and intentionally treating them as sub-human. The same officers wondered why the inmates would never listen to them and did not respect them. I had a personal policy of professionalism and simple courtesy - and it served me well. I'm not talking about coddling - this was a jail, and it was most unpleasant. But I did not treat the inmates like animals or taunt them. Subsequently, I never had the difficulties of some of the other officers. As I said, not all of the officers were cut of this cloth, but there was definitely a "macho" subculture that did not discourage excessive force. In fact, to be a bully was seen as being masculine. And I believe this attitude has only intensified since my days of being in law enforcement.

Which brings me back to yesterday's incident and my complaint overall.

While police are under a lot of pressure, and while many of them truly need bullet-proof vests and firepower - it's overdone. These days, police uniforms look downright menacing. There is a desire to be seen as an overwhelming "shock and awe" force of intimidation instead of as heroes and helpers of society. Too often, the police adopt a posture of seeing the public as enemy instead of the people they are to protect, the very reason they serve.

As a matter of routine I see police cars weaving unsafely through traffic, speeding, tailgating, and with no use of turn signals. Many police officers hold the public (and the law) in contempt, and feel themselves to be above the law. It is a very real human temptation to abuse power. Original sin is itself a desire to exercise authority one doesn't have. Time and again, especially here in New Orleans, police officers are caught on videotape abusing, bullying, looting, and even commiting armed robbery! Of course, those who commit such heinous crimes are a small minority. But I contend that there is an institutionalized authoritarian culture in our America that makes such things far too common. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have recently been caught brazenly practicing bribery and other high crimes - and these are just the ones who got caught. There is a culture of privilege instead of a culture of service among those who administer and enforce our laws.

Many New Orleans area cops, especially post-Katrina, have demonstrated an unbelievable lack of judgment. Cops in my hometown, Kenner, not long ago arrested a dark-skinned woman and roughed her up while cuffing her and stuffing her into the cop car. Somehow, she died. We're not talking about a bruise - we're talking about death. Nobody seems to know how. Eyewitness accounts of being thrown to the ground are denied by the police. But somehow, this woman died while in their custody. Of course, the police denied all wrongdoing, and internal investigations cleared them (isn't that a shocker?). By the way, the woman was a prominant heart surgeon - not a terrorist or thief. Was this situation handled correctly? Do you think the "macho" culture of the police and the larger culture of violence in our society served this situation well?

A few months ago, America was treated to a video of New Orleans police shooting a black man who had a pocket knife. Dozens (no exaggeration) of police officers in riot gear surrounded this solitary mentally-disturbed older man who walked around slowly. They yelled at him, backing away from him as if he were armed with an uzzi. They eventually opened fire and plugged him with seven or eight bullets - killing him. Well, thank God! Someone could have gotten hurt!

In yesterday's incident, three police agencies surrounded the house and tried to get the homeowner out. They used tear gas. They sent in a robot (who knew suburban cops had robots?). They even blew up part of a wall with explosives - and still couldn't get him. All of these police, all of this technology. This became a one-man quagmire that was escalated to the point where people in the neighborhood were now in danger that they never were before with this man living in this house for many years. Nobody was in danger until the police arrived. Nobody was in danger of getting shot until the police determined to use force. My goodness! They were using explosives in a suburb!

Did this man really need to be arrested and removed from his home? If so, why? Because he could have hurt himself? Well, we sure fixed that, didn't we? "We had to destroy the village in order to save it." I guess they (presumably) killed this man so he wouldn't hurt himself - and in so doing, subjected the neighborhood to lots of bullets, tear gas, and an explosion. "Do ya feel lucky, punk?" But of course, deputies got shot. One cop is dead. The homeowner is dead. This isn't a Dirty Harry movie where stuntmen do tricks and Clint Eastwood grits his teeth and fires blanks on a Hollywood set until the director yells "cut!" - and then goes out for a fancy meal and signs autographs. No, this is real life. There is a price to pay for all this swaggering, shoot-em-up culture.

And this brings me to the abuse of the first use of the law. The police are there to protect us from criminals and thugs - not to endanger us by being criminals and thugs. They are there to keep others from hurting us, not to hurt us under the pretense of making sure we don't hurt ourselves. The courts and police are there to protect private property and the constitutional right to liberty - not to deprive innocent people of liberty and to do the bidding of greedy relatives to deny us our property. They are there to serve us, not to intimidate us. They are there to protect us, not to demonstrate contempt for us.

These days, our culture doesn't see enforcement of the first use of the law as a godly vocation that is limited to keeping order. Rather, force has become our de facto religion. There is the notion - by "conservatives" and "liberals" alike - that we can create a Utopia by force. If we only have enough rules, regulations, bureacrats, government, penalties, and forms filled out in triplicate, we can force people to love one another, respect the environment, love animals, and think only approved thoughts in matters of race and gender. Likewise, if we only have enough guns, helicopters, heat-seeking missiles, bullet-proof vests, drug-sniffing dogs, and hostile cops, trash-talking security guards, and hanging judges, we can make people quit taking drugs, go to church, act and think within the mainstream, and (above all) love, trust, and obey the government.

Other countries see this thuggish police-state culture in America and are incredulous. Mike Rogers, a half-American, half-Japanese columnist who grew up in the U.S. but now lives in Tokyo, reports that the Japanese love the show "Cops." However, he has to explain to his friends that what they are seeing is real! They are amazed that police officers would actually behave the way they do in the real world.

Once again, I want to be clear. I support the police. I was a corrections officer myself. I've seen the pressure and unspeakable things police officers have to deal with on a daily basis. I believe the first use of the law is the work of God. My beef is not with individual police officers who work hard, are paid too little, and pay with their blood, sweat, and tears. My beef is with our cultural embrace of force as a means of bringing about some kind of heaven on earth. My beef is with the notion that the first use of the law can bring about repentence. My beef is with cops, judges, congressmen, soldiers, presidents, etc. that are entrusted with force, but who misuse that which God and society have entrusted them with. There is an ethos in this country that takes sadistic pleasure in jack-booted thuggery - and wraps it all up in the flag and plants a cross on it and discourages (or even disallows) any honest discussion or constructive criticism from the citizenry.

This is the first abuse of the law.


Rosko said...

Wow...Fr Watson was right. Amazing, Father, simply amazing. Your blog is one of my favorite to read. Keep the good stuff coming!

Whey Lay said...

Wow, where to start, how about with the part I agree with. Yes our culture in general has a fascination with the use of force. You also made a statement that made me think theologically,
There is the notion - by "conservatives" and "liberals" alike - that we can create a Utopia by force.
Wouldn't this style of thinking be in line with the Calvinistic approach to creating the "Kingdom of God" here on earth. Not that everyone in government knowingly acts with this in mind, but rather the general American civil religiosity is supportive of it.
Yes, individual police officers many times act like everyone else in society, they can be rude, impolite, or friendly, and brave to the point of leaving widows and orphans, much like Capt Octavio Gonzalez mentioned several articles earlier in the paper.
Having been a small town police chief at one point in my life I can assure you that only administrations with personal, political and finacial death wishes allow unchecked machoistic and liberal use's of force. Most utilizing and training per societally (read judically) approved use of force escalations. America has made it clear through the courts, both civil and legal, that police are not allowed to excercise more force than reasonable. As for the described run ins of your father and father in law, there is no defense for rude or coarse treatment from officers, my advice is to comply with the officer and then report it to the corresponding agency Chief's office. Nothing will probably happen from that single instance, but a behavior pattern if present, will be noticed, and I personnally know of two officer's whose poor dealings with the public have ended careers over it.
Regarding the Metaire incident, officers very well may have tried to make a low profile arrest outside of his property, obviously the safest course but the article alluded to the fact that he was never leaving his property. The arresting agency had a lawful court order, initiated by a judge, to take into custody. Now imagine the public outrage, had the arresting agency not initiated the arrest as ordered by a duly elected judge, and the man who was obviously suffering from paranoid delusions shoots the paperboy or neighbor who he believes is an NSA sniper. The department would be rightly criticized and possible within official misconduct charges for not fulfilling the court order. Regarding the court order for protective custody, I think you are a little hard on the man's family for trying to get him help, the article did name his sister as one who sought an order to get him treatment, everyones actions are not always suspect, as in trying to take his house or money, she might have actually loved her brother and wanted to see him well. You asked
How would you react if cops came to your door with an order to remove you from your home and lock you up in an institution against your will?
Most people comply, thankfully, when an arrest warrant is served, I would too, but you can bet I would be howling for my lawyer.
Your illustrations to Nazi Germany is just a tad hysterical. The man was a danger, to himself and to others. If I have an armed delusional paranoid for a neighbor that thinks there are snipers trying to kill him in my house, yea I want him to get treatment, I don't want him dead, but I want him gone until he is better.
In general police today are less likely to use unreasonable force than cops of 30 years ago, far more female officers serve now, so I have to disagree with you on the point that law enforcement is dominated by a machoistic subculture, or that America is more tolerant of police thuggery. Whole cities of civil trial lawyers exist to make sure of it.
I'll get off now of this soap box you have so gratiously provided (thanks). I really enjoy your writings and theological insight, but I probably won't ever vote for you if you run for Sheriff. Peace

Lawrence said...

Whey Lay,

Your arguments are logical, but the general perception of the profession of Peace Officers (by "us civilians") isn't leaning in agreement with you.

I am pro-police and patriotic, etc, even serviced my time in the Armed Forces. I'm not one of the people you generally see speaking out against police powers.

But a police robot, blowing down a wall, massive tear gas, and black-clad SWAT teams running around? For what? A paranoid man?

To the average citizen, this is just plain scary. Maybe the average trained policeman knows what's happening, but to the average joe this is stuff straight of out scifi-TV nightmares.

Makes for really bad press for the Police, no matter what the good intentions were.


I own guns, keep them in my house, and I know exactly how to use them. Does this make me dangerous in your eyes should you get a court order to arrest me?

I'm beginning to feel a wee bit paranoid...

Whey Lay said...

I won't disagree with you on perceptions, when it comes to public relations it is the only thing, regardless of reality.

Having armies of black clad tactical officers engaging a building for 19 hours with the end result being 1 maimed officer and one dead mentally ill subject is a tragic loss on many levels. From a shattered bone injury an officer most likely will have lost at least some use of his arm, a mentally ill man has lost his life, when he may have been only one treatment away from wellness and released from his personal prison, and residents of New Orleans have lost even more faith in their public servants, losses everywhere.
In a democratic society, we christians expect that the poor and sick will be cared for to some extent by our government, this is only right. As americans we expect many freedoms to be allowed of us, with knowledge that acceptable risks are there for individuals and society in general, such as the occasional incedence of the mentally unstable possesing firearms and injuring or killing others. We accept this so that the vast majority may be allowed to live life more free, without fear of the government arresting us for possesing guns, speaking ill of our leaders or acting contrary to what our neighbors believe is right. We acknowledge that people are going to die because of these freedoms, sometimes it will be at the hands of criminals or the insane, other times it will be by those we entrust the authority of the sword to.

Regarding the mentally ill, are we showing love for our neighbor if we leave them in a tortured mental state, when help is available? If not, then are we participating in the "first abuse of the law" when we forcibley treat them, since many are unable to recognize their sickness. I confess I don't know. If I were that ill I would hope my family, neighbors or community would get me help. If not helped, I pray that God would destroy my flesh rather than let me become so delusional as to hurt or kill the innocent.

As for serving papers on you Lawrence, depends on what it's for. If you just haven't paid a fine and it's a bench warrant, I'd probably just stop by and pick you up after you got off of work. If it's something like "assault with a deadly weapon and attempted murder", it's me and 10 associates at 5am, I'll bring the coffee.

Oh, and just because your paranoid, it doesn't mean someone isn't out to get you anyway.

Father Hollywood said...

Great discussion, guys.

I just don't think killing the guy is being loving to your neighbor. My friend sin other countries read this kind of stuff in disbelief. Can anyone honestly say this was the best way to handle this situation? And no, they did not try to arrest the man outside of his home. They came and tried to take him away, he resisted, and it escalated.

Even the well-loved and usually outspoken Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee has been eerily quiet about this case.

And I do still maintain that there is a macho ethos to the police - the female officers notwithstanding. Women in such professions make the point of acting macho - many in an effort to outdude the dudes. We're seeing a huge increase in violence and macho behavior among girls in our culture - especially young girls who have been raised on feminism, Title IX, and the feminized military.

Also, I have followed up on the story, and the man's sister issued a "written statement" that sounds like a lawyer wrote it. I can't surmise about her motivations and such, but I know that if this were a relative of mine - my reaction would be a little different than the political and legal spin doctoring and "talking points" that are typified in this case.

I know there are lots of opinions and points of view out there, but I'm disgusted with the too-typical ethos among those who wield authority in our society.

Finally, it does not good to complain to superiors about rude treatment. I used to be on the "inside," and I know what I'm talking about.

Don't worry, I won't run for sheriff. I wield a more powerful weapon these days. ;-)

Lawrence said...

Regarding the mentally ill, are we showing love for our neighbor if we leave them in a tortured mental state, when help is available?


If not, then are we participating in the "first abuse of the law" when we forcibley treat them, since many are unable to recognize their sickness. I confess I don't know.

A tough decision that people in authority are forced to make on a regular basis.

If it is a matter of that person hurting others, the choice is pretty clear. But when the person is only hurting themselves, who is to say what is or is not a act of self injury?

If I felt, as this man did, that someone was out to get me then I could become a very dangerous person. But who is to determine if my fears are rational or not? They are certainly rational to me. And this puts you as the peace officer in a very difficult position.

If I were that ill I would hope my family, neighbors or community would get me help.

In this cas they tried, but it turned into something quite different. (Another brick on the road of good intentions).

As for serving papers on you Lawrence, depends on what it's for.

True. And this is based on your perception of me given whatever limited information you have available.

If it's something like "assault with a deadly weapon and attempted murder", it's me and 10 associates at 5am, I'll bring the coffee.

Yes. The assumption of risk, or rather the risk assessment changes drastically given the context.

But would you give me a reasonable chance to surrender, or just barge in and tackle me in bed?

I'm not paranoid about being arrested, so much as being assaulted while asleep in bed, and not even paranoid about that really. I'm more concerned about being arrested in bed at 5am, with the police destroying half my house and injuring or scaring my family in the process.

Oh, and just because your paranoid, it doesn't mean someone isn't out to get you anyway.

I appreciate your encouragement and support.

fencegecko said...

Amen to all your words. While living in Indianapolis I seent several letters to the police complaining about the excessive speed of police officers. Sometimes my complaints were investigated and resulted in disciplinary action. A couple of times I was harassed by the investigating officer. Sometimes the comment was "you want the police to hurry to your call." The problem was that the officers speeding wasn't connected to a service call. Its like the police, in some cases, feel entitled to break the law.
The police call their employers "civilians" like they are in the army. The police are our servants or employees. They are part of our civil society not a paramilitary force.

BE OFF Ye scurvy dog!! said...