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by Peter Moskos

March 19, 2009

A policeman's job is only easy in a police state

So says Ramon "Mike" Vargas (Charlton Heston) in Orson Well's 1958 "Touch of Evil" (thanks, Dave H.).

Two Peoria, Illinois, police officers were arrested in relation to a police stomping. Here's the story in the Peoria Journal Star.

I worry about publicizing such things because they make people think such behavior is normal for police. It's not. Such beat downs are not common. I didn't see them and it's not just because police weren't thumping people when I was around. And even if that were the case, great! Then all it takes it one decent cop to stop such things. And you know what, there are a lot of decent cops.

I just wish there more videos of cops doing good. Day-in-and-day-out, police put themselves at risk to keep the streets safe. Where are those videos? The problem is that when cops do everything right, the videos tends to be pretty boring.

In this video, I assume the cop wasn't moving his leg up and down because he had a twitch. It looks pretty bad. Do I have sympathy for the stomped guy? Not really. He's a drug-dealing, cop-running, and perhaps girlfriend-beating prick. But that still doesn't make it right to stomp the SOB. Besides, now he's going to win a lawsuit and get paid. Thanks a lot. Boy, you sure showed him.

I like to think that had that happened in front of me, I would have moved in to stop it. I'm pretty certain I would have. As soon as the stomping starts, you push the officer away and say, "What the fuck are you doing?!" End of story. But it's not.

Then when the video comes out I still get in trouble for not doing more. Even though comparatively I was the good guy.

Had I been there and seen everything, would I have turned in the cop? I doubt it. That same stomping cop may have saved the life of me or a friend some other time. That's what makes it so tricky. When you have a job where you need people to cover your back and save your life, you're going to cut them a lot of slack. How can you not? Hell, we all make mistakes.

Doing the right thing is never easy when you can't figure out what the right thing is. And even when you try to do the right thing you can get in trouble. So best not to see anything. Best to remain ignorant. It leads to what I call the Blue Wall of Ignorance. It's not the Blue Wall of Silence. That's overrated.

Let's say there was no video of this incident. Then nothing happens.

But the next time the officer who stomped the guy needs backup, maybe I'm a little slow to respond. I don't want to be around for whatever he does because I don't want to get in trouble for his actions. I don't want to get in trouble simply for being present. Best to get there after everything is done. But that attitude doesn't stop a beat down. Nor does it make anybody safer. Nobody wins.

Police that do bad things need to be socialized into good behavior by the vast majority of officers who do the right thing. But the system doesn't let it work that way. That's the real shame.


Anonymous said...

Great analysis, Peter. Thanks so much for posting that and getting the discussion out there. As Frank Serpico suggested, the unethical cop needs to fear the ethical cop, and not the other way around.

Anonymous said...

Good description of one Catch-22 of police "brutality" situations. But, in your scenario wouldn't pushing the other officer away and yelling at him potentially create problems for you? If that guy is higher in the social pecking order of your unit don't you take the chance of being the one with no back-up.
I agree that physically getting in between an overly emotional co-worker and a compliant subject is mandatory, but additonal comments at the same time are going to put you into a strange situation. I don't mean to pick apart your comments, but I wondered if you would really publicly chastize a fellow cop in that situation.
I also wonder what you think about the emotion/adrenaline factor in a video like this. To me, it was pretty obvious that the guy running from the cops had finished getting rid of whatever illegal item he was carrying and was ready to surrender. I assume the cops realized this too, and were also pissed at having to risk their lives chasing him. The physical and emotional drives of the human body are difficult to turn off when a guy stops his car and sticks his hands out the window. Does anyone take that into account when watching a video like this? Should they? Should we expect more from guys earning $40,000 or $50,000 a year?
BTW, Dave H, Frank Serpico commenting on unethical cops is like Alex Rodriguez criticizing Mark McGuire.


Anonymous said...

I didn't mean to sound overly critical in my previous post. You have the ability to articulate things that most cops couldn't dream of explaining to anyone but each other. I have just seen these sensitive situations more times than I'd like to admit and know that the spectre of legal action against cops makes them act very strangely. Even when arrestees emerge without a scratch on them, cops actions in these situations can ruin unit morale.

PCM said...


Thanks for the comments.

I don't think it would be create a problem to push another officer away who is doing something wrong. I think you get thanked for that after the fact. Doing the right thing is good.

Another thing you can do is put cuffs on the guy and then you can say stop beating *my* prisoner.

I mean I'm sure this officer in hindsight wishes he didn't do what he did. He was being recorded on a police camera, for crying out loud. Sometimes another officer needs to step in and knock sense into the guy.

I think your adrenaline factor in a situation like this is huge. And it's not fair to judge just from the part of the tape with the first stomp.

Adrenaline is real and it is a factor that needs to be considered. But it does not excuse an officer's actions. We should expect more. (We should also pay more.)

And why the dig on Serpico? I do think he was a clean and ethical (perhaps overly ethical) officer. I'm not sure I would have wanted to work with him, but I've very happy to have worked in a post-Serpico police era.

What am I missing here?

Anonymous said...

I completely agree that if a cop seems to be harming a person while there's no threat, the cop has to be stopped. Doing the right thing is good. The way it is done though, can enable you to become the (sort of) conscience of a squad vs. a pariah.
If you create a scene in public when in this kind of situation, you will get defensive reactions 99% of the time. If you "passively" intercede (physically place your body in between) you are accomplishing your goal and not putting the cop on the spot while emotions are running high. This allows you to approach and talk to the cop later on if you feel its necessary, or to never mention it again if you feel the message was delivered.
Regarding the sainted Frank Serpico: I was raised to believe in what this guy stood for by my cop father who worked at the same time as he did. I read the book, I saw the movie, I respected him. I came on my job feeling the same way, as I still do about his supposed beliefs.
Then I watched his Mollen Commission testimony in 1997. Despite his throw away remarks about how he loves good cops, he portrayed the present day NYPD as just as corrupt as when he was working. As a highly active cop dealing daily with temptation and use of force situations, Serpico's description of the NYPD was foreign to my everyday experience. His testimony also led directly to several derogatory comments by civilians, A.D.A.'s, and non-police friends of mine. I'm sure his characterization of the Department affected the feelings of some who were undecided about their support or dislike of police as well.
This made me question his motives and I read up about his post-NYPD life and exploits. I didn't begrudge him his media exposure and success, but he always alluded to some rougue group of cops who were still out to get him. He operates through his nephew/lawyer/agent who has to keep Serpico's location a secret to ensure his safety. Very dramatic and very damaging to cops in general who some people want to believe operate outside of the law.
There are also his public comments on controversial police use of force cases where he begins by saying he loves cops and blames the system. He then criticizes individual cop's actions based on his knowledge of police tactics and protocol from the 1960's. He basically offers himself up as an expert witness for commentators who make their living criticizing authority.
His public actions and self-serving comments have always made me wonder and I've never heard him asked; If Frank Serpico was such a straight shooter, why in his first five years (while on patrol) on the job did he not realize the NYPD was corrupt and that he needed to do something about it?
Sorry for the long post.

PCM said...


Thanks for the long post!

I wouldn't yell at an officer in public for just fucking up. But stomping somebody, committing a crime, and risking his job is something else? Sure. But I had a tight squad and felt I could talk to any of them in the right circumstance. But then again I never faced this circumstance so who knows how it would have turned out?

And yes, Serpico of all people should know the harms that can come from his comments today.

And my take from the book about him was that he didn't want to change the world. He just wanted to police without taking dirty money. And only when the department wouldn't let him do that did he raise a fuss.

I really agree with you about Serpico living in the police world of the past. But for that matter, I'm probably living in 2001 and when you retire you'll be stuck thinking all police behave like they did in 2010 (or whenever).

A few years ago I left a comment on some blog by or about Serpico basically saying exactly that.

In reply I got back a very aggressive comment or email from that very nephew/lawyer/agent. He's never policed a day in his life, has he? I couldn't help but think, "Who the f*ck are *you* telling me about police?!" If Serpico wants to call me a naive fool, fine. But from his nephew? Vaffanculo !

Still, I'm very happy that Serpico and David Durk did what they did back then. For that, I will cut both of them a lot of slack.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you're right about cutting Serpico a little slack, but I just distrust his holier than thou attitude as though he's the only guy who ever refused a bribe. Thanks for your time.

PCM said...

Hey, don't worry about my time. Thanks for writing!