The endgame for American civic responsibility. Pt. I

14 Aug
August 14, 2014

I’m going to write something fresh about Ferguson, Missouri, and the once-extraordinary notion that law enforcement officers — uniquely authorized, trained and armed as they are to use lethal force against American civilians in peacetime as is necessary to serve the commonweal — need not be identified when they have in fact taken a human life.  The notion that police officers are entitled to anonymity after such an action is not merely anti-democratic; it is, in fact, totalitarian.  The idea that a police department, with all of its resources and sworn personnel, might claim to be unable to protect an officer from retribution, and therefore employ such anonymity to further protect the officer from his citizenry is even more astonishing.  And any police agency showing such institutional cowardice which might then argue its public should continue to come forward and cooperate with officers in police investigations and to trust in the outcome is engaged in little more than rank hypocrisy.  After all, if an armed and sworn officer — backed by all the sworn personnel of his agency, by the power of its prosecutorial allies, the law and the courts — is afraid, then why should any witness or party to any crime, unarmed and unallied as they are, be asked to come forward and participate publicly in the process?

It would be nice to think that this new notion of frightened and vulnerable police officers, taking life anonymously and then hiding behind claims of imminent and actual threat, is some fresh hell of sudden origin, and that this Missouri police department is alone in having lost its moral compass.  Not so.

As Orson Welles famously pointed out, police work is only easy in a police state.  And there is a temptation — in these days of shrinking institutional journalism — on the part of much larger law enforcement agencies to make their jobs very easy indeed.  Before we get to Ferguson and the present tragedy, indulge me by reviewing a twelve-year-old opinion piece, written for the Baltimore Sun in the wake of a shooting by a special agent that the FBI field office declined to identify:  From the March 12, 2002 edition of that paper:

Here’s  A fundamental truth about police work in America:

In this country, only a law enforcement officer has the authority to use deadly force against fellow citizens in time of peace. As a well-armed society, we find it necessary to arm our law officers as a consequence and to accept that they will have to use those weapons as an act of personal deliberation.

This is an extraordinary right. But on foot patrol, in a radio car, on drug raids or during car stops, there can be no body politic to deliberate such matters. It comes down to a solitary civil servant reaching for the right decision in a terrifying instant. We train people for that instant. We pray that they act correctly.

One other fundamental truth about police work was absolutely clear to nearly everyone, save for the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Baltimore office and, perhaps, the U.S. Attorney for Maryland:  If American citizens grant law officers the right to carry and use firearms with deadly force, it comes with an equal measure of responsibility.

When a firearm is used in the line of duty, an individual and an agency are both responsible for that action.
If a law officer exercises his right to lethal force, his actions are accounted and declared to the public he serves. He does not hide behind an arbitrary grant of anonymity; he is publicly identified as an acknowledgment that when he accepted the extraordinary rights granted to a law officer, he also accepted the responsibilities.

The recent shooting of an unarmed suspect by Special Agent Christopher Braga, 35, of the Baltimore field office of the FBI during a traffic stop in Anne Arundel County seems, at first glance, to be a tragic failure on the part of that agency and of one agent in particular.

Yet initially, the FBI resisted all efforts by the public to identify Special Agent Braga. The U.S. attorney for Maryland remained mute. They held to this policy for a week. And when the FBI released the agent’s name, officials said they did so only because local newspapers, having obtained the information from other sources, were forcing their hand.

Yet every other police agency in this country understands that when one of its officers uses deadly force, it is an action that demands accountability to the public.  Moreover, many of those agencies — if asked — would also provide information indicating whether a specific officer had been involved in past shootings and, further, whether any citizen complaints against an officer for excessive use of force had been sustained by administrative review. How else for the public to know whether a problem might exist with a particular officer?

Local FBI officials said they were following a bureau-wide policy in refusing to identify the responsible agent. Perhaps, but the policy is both wrong and contemptuous of the citizenry the FBI seeks to serve. Beyond that, the agent in charge of the Baltimore office suggested that the anonymity of agents needs to be maintained to protect them from possible retribution.

Remarkable.

Maryland troopers, federal ATF agents and Baltimore police officers who every day police some of the toughest terrain in America are routinely identified by their agencies when they exercise deadly force. Are all of those law officers at lesser risk than FBI agents? And what about ordinary citizens asked by law enforcement to assist their efforts by testifying openly in criminal courts, knowing that they can be identified publicly for doing so.

Even as the agent was finally identified, FBI officials couldn’t help but reveal just how self-serving and ethically bankrupt their policy actually is. Lynne A. Hunt, the head of the Baltimore FBI office, noted that Special Agent Braga is a former Marine officer, a decorated Persian Gulf war veteran and a trained member of an FBI tactical team. Adding that Special Agent Braga is a husband and father of three young children, Special Agent Hunt said she did not want him to be perceived as a “faceless agent.”

She thereby made it clear that when the FBI believes that information about an agent involved in the shooting of a citizen might be perceived in a positive light, she and the bureau stand ready to provide it. Presumably, if the agent involved had no military service, a spotty record with the bureau and a divorce from a childless marriage, then faceless he might remain.

Given that the FBI’s actions in this matter have suddenly gone from a blanket declaration of policy to a belated attempt at spin, how is the public to believe that the bureau’s review of this matter will lead to a full airing of facts? Can this same Special Agent Hunt be relied upon to reveal the full facts of the probe, or will we hear from her only when certain facts serve her agency’s interest?

If FBI officials here wish to retain the right to exercise deadly force against Maryland citizens — as well as the respect of that citizenry — they, and the U.S. attorney who oversees them, will take a hard look at their performance in this matter. And they will find a way to achieve the kind of public accountability required of all other law enforcement officers.

*       *       *

When that op-ed ran a dozen years ago, the FBI’s effort to cloak its agents in anonymity was a unique affront to accountability and the public’s right to know in my state.  But not for long.  In part two, we’ll revisit the Baltimore Police Department less than a decade later, following the U.S. Justice Department down the same ugly road. And if you think such criticism as offered above gave the FBI the slightest pause, think again.  Justin Fenton, currently of The Sun, tells me that he is still waiting for the local field office of the bureau to properly identify the agents who killed a citizen in Owings Mills, Maryland back in April.  The citizens of Maryland are still not allowed to know the identities of the federal agents who kill them, to evaluate the service histories or past behavior of those agents, to know whether this is the first time an agent has used lethal force or the tenth.  For the FBI, police work in these United States has been made very easy indeed.  On to Part II, seven years down this bad road, where the same virus infects local law enforcement:

15 replies
  1. Bill says:

    I’m waiting for the follow up article about the looting…

    Reply
  2. DrRufusThibault says:

    It’s obvious to everyone, including law enforcement, that the name of an officer who kills someone can’t be withheld indefinitely. The question is whether there might be times where it is reasonable to withhold names while facts are established, and emotions are running hot. Is it really anti-democratic and totalitarian if the name is released next week instead of yesterday?

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      You’ll note that the preeminent law enforcement agency in the U.S. is successfully denying our citizenry the knowledge of which of its special agents use deadly force and how often. Other major departments have attempted to follow suit, and continue to resist transparency in an ongoing battle against public information. Your premise isn’t correct.

      But with regard to the lesser, but still problematic delay in the release of public information, there is a notable societal cost there is well.

      In Baltimore, they have adopted that policy. The practical application is this: When a police shooting is being properly attended to by local media, then the identity of the shooter, his history, his previous encounters with the citizenry, can be examined by reporters while the story is current and relevant. And so they will be.

      Hold the officers name for several days and the media will inevitably move on to fresh headlines or broadcasts. By the time the identity of the officer is known, there are few reporters remaining to do the legwork at the courthouse or elsewhere to give due diligence to assessing the officer and the relevance of his history, postings, performance, etc. The temporary anonymity is calculated for a fast-moving media culture. Indeed, police spokesmen can wait until the immediate aftermath of the next hellacious happening to quietly let go of the name, knowing they have mitigated against accountability in doing so.

      And in terms of basic fairness, once next-of-kin is notified, civilians are not entitled to any grace period from police authorities with regard to the release of their identities, regardless of sensitivities. Why should armed, sworn and allied public servants be granted more protection than civilians they serve?

      Reply
      • Bill says:

        Then shame on the media for losing interest

        Reply
        • David Simon says:

          The media arc is merely indicative of our own small attention span as a society. The news cycle is what it is not merely because our media providers wish it so, but more truthfully, because we as a people will not wait around to address a complex or detailed problem, much less endeavor to solve such. They can only sell what we are willing to buy. You might as well, if you are honest, write “shame on us.”

          Reply
  3. Warren Belliveau says:

    Here in Toronto, around the corner from us, actually. There was a dust up with two men and a minor in which the minor had pulled a gun and fired off a couple of rounds. No one was hurt and the two men fled. One causing a car accident, the other on foot, carrying a baseball bat. It’s illegal here for anyone, including the cops to release to the public the identity of a minor even after he’s been convicted much less a suspect on the loose who hasn’t been charged but the Toronto police did just that! And the local news here co-opersated fully and no one batted an eye. The excuse given (and never challenged by anyone) was that the suspect was “particularly dangerous.” His name and a facebook photo were released across the province. Most people I talked too simply didn’t seem the to give a shit and just the kid caught. So it’s not just your country where you have a quickly developing police state. But here in tranquil Canada as well. What’s worse I think is that so-called “security” has become as important to our citizens as it is to those violating other citizens rights. I mean what do you do when you have a society who would rather “safe” than be free?

    Reply
  4. Tom Cleaver says:

    Policing is indeed easier in a police state – which is more and more what we have in the former constitutional democratic republic we live in today.

    Reply
  5. Doctor Memory says:

    “In this country, only a law enforcement officer has the authority to use deadly force against fellow citizens in time of peace.”

    If only that, too, were true. Now, thanks to the constant lobbying of the NRA, in many states every (white) citizen is provisionally deputized to “stand his ground” and employ lethal force against any (black) miscreant who acts in any manner which could be plausibly described as threatening.

    Reply
    • 1st Lt L Diablo says:

      It’s not that you, Dr Memory, are wrong, it’s just that this is not the complete picture of the right to self-defense.

      Yes, white folk often do get special treatment in cases like the ones you are alluding to. No doubt.

      However, it’s not monolithic. I’m white and I was prosecuted for felony menacing when I pointed a firearm at 3 hispanic males who had made threats, flanked me in an L-shaped ambush maneuver and finally shoved me from behind. They were “unarmed” as the saying goes, but there were 3 of them and they were sociopaths with known histories of violence.

      However, the entire law enforcement chain, from patrol officer who responded to the call to the DA herself, all felt these men of color were the victims and I, the white male, was the perpetrator.

      Regardless of whether or not I acted legally under the law (I feel I did), the “system” was clearly not allowing this whiteboy to even brandish a weapon on 3 non-whites.

      My point is we do not live in the Jim Crow south. White boys do get prosecuted for gun crimes against minorities, but those cases don’t often make the news.

      For what it’s worth…

      Reply
  6. Jack Mccoy says:

    I’m not going to comment on what did or did not happen in Ferguson because I wasn’t there and haven’t seen the evidence or heard all the witness statements. I will only say that if it is what it appears to be so far, it is an abomination and the officer needs to be held accountable.

    As far the anonymity goes, however, I will throw in my two cents. I’ve been in law enforcement in a major urban city for 15 years now. I cannot fathom why this department thinks its a good idea to keep that information held in secret. First, it looks like they are hiding, because they are. If it was a righteous shooting then prove it, and do it in the sunlight for all to see. We’ve had plenty in my city that looked bad, and were protested, but after a thorough investigation were proven to be justified. They key is to make that investigation transparent. If you don’t, and it is a clean shooting, no one will believe you.
    When a police shooting occurs and law enforcement circles the wagons it just creates an “us”and “them” reality that does no one any good. It makes it more dangerous for officers on the street and it makes it even more difficult for prosecutors to sustain convictions. All of that just equates to a community that is less safe and hates its cops. When we give good people reasons to distrust us, we are in trouble. I feel for the folks in Ferguson. The ones with badges, and the ones without.

    Reply
  7. David Jao says:

    Well said! This was true 12 years ago and is true now. If a member of the general public kills someone then they are absolutely subject to prompt identification regardless of any danger to their personal safety. Narrow exceptions exist, e.g. minor children, but they do not apply here. The notion that a police officer deserves a stricter standard of protection is laughable. It’s astonishing that we are even needing to debate this issue.

    Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] a trio of blog posts about Ferguson, David Simon quotes Orson Welles’ terribly apposite adage that […]

  2. […] Simon, creator of “The Wire,” points out just a few elements of the bullshit that has been thrown our way since Michael Brown was gunned down in the middle of a street in Ferguson, […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>