Many of us read with alarm the story about the two innocent black men stopped by Seattle police. Both men lack criminal records, go to school, and have full-time jobs. On the video, which has gone viral, officer Brad Richardson is recorded saying that he would “make stuff up” to justify his decision to arrest the men for burglary.
As a result of Officer Richardson’s negligence, Josh Lawson and Christopher Franklin were taken in to police custody and put in a cell. The officers also took the time to deliver some facial bruises to the men as they arrested them. Although the men were later exonerated, much of the damage is already done.
The arrested Black men in Seattle have filed suit for unlawful arrest and excessive force, but there is still much to discuss. The story being told by Mr. Lawson and Mr. Franklin is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the degree to which the civil liberties of Black men and women are violated nearly every single day. What we finally catch on video is simply a glimpse into the habits, norms, and procedures that have existed in police departments for decades.
In the early 1990s, NWA released a song called “F*ck the Police,” in which they documented police brutality occurring in their communities. Their song was a continuation of the tradition started by the Black Panthers, who stood up against the police at a time when it was dangerous to do so. When the song was released, NWA was attacked for being disrespectful, un-American menaces to society, in large part because people have never believed our stories about police abuse. The Rodney King video changed much of this overnight.
The Seattle video is tragic, not just for the men involved, but for the thousands of other American citizens who also had the misfortune of tangling with police officers who like to “make stuff up.” In most of these cases, the victims were not men with clean criminal records and full-time jobs. Instead, they were individuals who’d made mistakes in the past, but lacked credibility as they told their stories to police oversight boards. As I write this article right now, there are thousands of men and women in prison who were victimized by an overzealous, unethical police officer who chose to abuse his authority.
The entire justice system in the United States needs an overhaul. We must declare a war against injustice, and spend the billions necessary to fully investigate cases of those who were given their sentences before camera phones could capture the evidence.
As the son of a police officer, I respect good law enforcement. Many of us are tempted to hate the police for some of their abuses, but officers are the first ones we call when we are in trouble. But one important step we must make as a society is to break the blue line of silence, issuing stiffer-than-life penalties on officers who witness police abuse on the job and fail to speak up. The same penalties are given to citizens who harbor fugitives or assist in the commission of a crime. Officers should not be above the laws they are expected to uphold.
The clock is ticking on the lives of those who rot away in prison for crimes they did not commit. Our society must take a stand against police abuse and provide necessary incentives for officers to do the right thing. We can start by cleaning up mistakes of the past, and then take the additional step of avoiding this kind of behavior in the future.