San Luis Obispo Police Chief Steve Gesell wrote an op-ed last month (“A shocking and growing lack of deference to the law,” Dec. 3, Tribune). It was disturbing both due to its demeaning tone toward the public and the content that can charitably be described as asinine.
First, Chief Gesell evidently believes that all police officers are titans among plebeian citizens. Second, it appears that he prefers his well-insulated cocoon to facing and acknowledging the harsh societal realities.
Chief Gesell offers an itemized list to the public prescribing how they should mind their manners while interacting with the police. The nuggets go from “listen to a police officer’s direction” to “when a police officer draws a weapon, listen to his commands.” The citizens should be submissive, humble, and obedient in the presence of superior beings, i.e. the police. Never mind Lincoln’s noble words that we have: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” The chief erroneously equates rule of law with law enforcement. Consequently, any lack of deference toward abusive law enforcers is tantamount to disrespect for the law itself. It is inexcusable that one in his position confuses the two; they are intrinsically distinct from each other.
All the assertions made and conclusions drawn by Chief Gesell to support his views are derived from his oblique interpretation of tragic events in Ferguson. He dismisses the protests over the death of a young, unarmed man by a police officer as “push for mob justice” and cynically declares that police officer Wilson, who killed Michael Brown, “fulfilled his duty to the community.” His distorted opinion is based on the “facts” in the discredited grand jury report, heavily influenced by a biased prosecutor who made sure that the grand jury only heard what he wanted it to hear.
According to Chief Gesell, “Michael Brown is the last person who deserves the hero’s hat.” Nobody, including Brown’s parents, claimed that he was a hero. The nationwide anger was at Wilson’s atrocity: shooting to kill an unarmed person six times while he was moving away from the scene. Under these circumstances, Brown posed no threat. Brown was no angel, but this is irrelevant. What is relevant is Wilson’s action against him, i.e. a de facto death penalty. Wilson decided to assume the roles of judge, jury, and executioner—the roles that are solely within the domain of our legal system.
There are three points regarding the police that need to be addressed:
1. Due to the very nature of the law enforcement profession, officers inherently face some high-risk situations. However, they know this negative aspect of the job when making their career choice.
2. It is common knowledge that grand juries almost never issue indictments against police officers. It is true even when the police are accused of serious crimes, e.g. homicide, brutality, or violation of victims’ civil rights. Consequently, many police officers literally get away with murder. It is the main reason for the anger among minority groups. They believe the legal system often fails them. A recent example is the case of Eric Garner. New York Police Department’s policy states that, “Members of the New York City Police Department will NOT use chokehold.” Last July, police suspected that Garner was selling untaxed single cigarettes. A police officer put his arm around Garner’s neck pulled him backward and down into ground. The same police officer then pushed Garner’s head into the ground while four officers moved to keep Garner restrained. While lying face down on the sidewalk, Garner repeated 11 times, “I can’t breathe.” The pleas had no effect on the police. After Garner lost consciousness, police turned him sideways on the sidewalk and called for an ambulance, which arrived after seven minutes. Neither the police nor the emergency medical technician performed CPR on Garner.
Forty-three-years old, Garner was pronounced dead upon arrival, one hour later, at the hospital. The medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide. His death was caused by chokehold, compression of chest, and prone positioning during physical restraint by the police. The grand jury decided to issue no indictments against any officer. This resulted in hundreds of nationwide demonstrations against police brutality, or as Police Chief Gesell would say, “push for mob justice.” Alleged crime: Selling untaxed single cigarettes. Punishment carried out by the police: death.
Amendments V and XIV to the U.S. Constitution state that no person shall be deprived of life without due process; Amendment VIII to the Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Did the police violate three amendments to the U.S. Constitution? Did the police violate their own departmental policy against chokehold? Did Garner’s alleged crime fit the punishment? Was the grand jury’s decision consistent with the U.S. Constitution and ensuing U.S. laws? Are the public protests and rallies due to this event examples of “push for mob justice?” You decide.
We claim to be a nation of laws. It is an axiom that justice is blind. Laws apply to everyone. No one should be above the law because there are no exceptions. So how could this happen? Have we failed president Lincoln?
3. A few assert that those who criticize police are unappreciative of their services. Therefore, in case of an emergency, they should not call 911 for police assistance. These misguided individuals conveniently forget that responding to a 911 call is not left at the discretion of the police. The police have the duty to respond because it is an integral part of their job. When providing needed assistance in response to a 911 call, the police are not doing a personal favor to the caller. Rather, they are performing one of their duties for which the taxpayers have already paid. It is preposterous to suggest otherwise.
The problem of police violence has become so serious that California Attorney General Harris has called for a review of training in bias and the use of police force. Additionally, California Legislature has made the police violence issue its top priority. According to reports, California legislators are determined to pass laws curbing police violence. There are many bills dealing with police accountability, collections of comprehensive data on how often police wound or kill suspects, and third-party reviews of police shootings. Lawmakers have also discussed addressing the problem of grand jury proceedings and their practice of almost never indicting police officers regardless of strength of the evidence.
Personally, I have the highest regard for the law enforcement officers, firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders who perform their duties with dedication and professionalism, keeping public safety as their top priority. They deserve our respect because they have earned it. And let us remember that an overwhelming majority conduct themselves honorably.
All professions have a few rogue individuals whose misconduct tarnishes the image of the whole profession. The sooner they are gotten rid of, the better it is for the profession and society at large. Otherwise, tragic consequences may result. For example, a deranged person who was enraged that no police officer was indicted for Garner’s death killed two officers who had nothing to do with the Garner tragedy.
Zaf Iqbal is past associate dean and professor emeritus of accounting at Cal Poly’s Orfalea College of Business. He volunteers with several nonprofit organizations, including Wilshire Hospice, Good Neighbor Program, and Child Development Resource Center of the Central Coast. He’s also past president of the San Luis Obispo Democratic Club. Send comments to the executive editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.