I’m like a dog. Every time my wife goes out the door, she is dead to me. Until she comes home and I see her again and I’m happy. I’m told this is how dogs perceive our absence, and my dog bears this out. My wife, no more emotional than I but far more intelligent, doesn’t see it this way. She trusts I will come back. She has seen such worry and coped.
What she saw, though, for more than 23 years of marriage, was me going off to a job that might kill or injure me. Married to a police officer, she understood the risks my partners and I faced and worried silently. Too many bad guys trying to kill cops, too many trying, and sometimes succeeding, to hurt me.
Often, injury and assault began without a plan. A drunk or disorderly didn’t understand that we weren’t going away, that the little infraction we were there for required him to submit, to go along. Anger escalated into resistance and lawful commands – “put your hands behind your back, you’re under arrest, stop resisting” – were ignored. Often the suspect would be taken to the ground, per common police training. At that point, it was far too late for pleas like, “Wait a minute, hear me out, I didn’t mean it, lemme just go home.”
Or, my new personal favorite, “I go to UVa you fucking, you fucking racists!”
One Saturday night on King Street in Alexandria, decades ago, a fellow officer whom I will call Barry (because that’s his name) and I were flagged down by a cabdriver with a sleeping drunk in his backseat. Unable to rouse the drunk or determine his true destination, the cabbie sought out the police who always walked the bar district. We awakened the man, persuaded him to pay his cabfare and began to take him into custody for being drunk in public. Yes, that is illegal in Alexandria, as in many places. We had the option of taking him to a city detox facility where he could sleep it off and walk free in the morning instead of jail but he would have none of it. He began to resist us, “without force” in the legal vernacular that means he didn’t try to hit us. But he did swing his arms, stamp his feet and try to break free. As we struggled between the bumpers of two parked cars, Barry’s and my choices were: let him go (certainly not, for his safety and our jobs); use pepper spray, an effective immobilizer and aggression-ender, but which would have required us to let go first, and close car traffic on King Street endangered him and precluded that; or take him to the ground where we could wrestle his arms into handcuffs without having to hit him or letting him hit us. Not getting hit? Always a preferred option. Senior officer that I was, I told Barry my intention and swung the drunk over my propped leg. He chose that moment to go fully limp and let his head fall before his chest, so he smashed face-first to the ground.
Unnecessary? In the grand scheme of things, yes. Had anyone asked this guy at the beginning of his evening, “Hey, Bubba, after your night on the town, you want to fight some cops and get face-planted? Betcha he’d say, no. But at the moment it occurred, with the choices Barry and I had, and the choices Mr. Drunk-guy had made? No, not unnecessary or unreasonable. And more than reasonable for us cops. We don’t like to hit people, but most of all we don’t like to get hit. And my wife hated when I came home injured, had to go to the basement to remove a bloody uniform before the kids saw it. We know injury, and God forbid, death, are not unlikely On The Job (my former job) but that doesn’t mean we won’t take steps to protect ourselves, for ourselves and our families. Those steps include using force.
So police point guns at men in dark cars who refuse to show their hands. Shots are fired at deranged men who throw rocks at cops and citizens on city streets, or foolish men who walk through departmentt stores waving weapons. And as we have all seen in news video by now, 20-year-old UVA student Martese Johnson got taken to the ground in a confrontation with uniformed agents of the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control on St. Patrick’s Day. No justification for this action has yet been offered by the ABC, but the ubiquitous video shows Johnson struggling to resist control and cursing the cops over him. There has been no claim of police brutality, other than that implied by the national media inferring from Johnson’s bloody face that some impropriety must have occurred. Savannah Guthrie, for example, NBC’s Today Show talker, wrapped up their next-day coverage with, “Those pictures say a lot.”
What exactly do they say to you, Savannah? That a privileged kid waved his college colors as a shield against responsibility? That an easily-played race card could be dealt – and bet on – before any facts are released or testimony presented? Surely not, Savannah. In your eyes, it is more “if it bleeds, it leads “ journalism to fill news hole, more perpetuation of a popular but dangerously false media theme of police misconduct toward blacks. Tuesday, Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak decried “sensation and scandal” in Charlottesville for “a bloody arrest for an alcohol infraction,” and “gang rapes/not gang rapes,” a reference to another media failure, Rolling Stone magazine’s false 2014 article on an rumored student rape that local police say never occurred. (To be fair, the Post did come up with the earliest comprehensive debunking of the Rolling Stone piece, but for Dvorak to cite the non-event as a Charlottesville failure is a cheap shot.) The press insertion of a racial dynamic continued Wednesday with Post columnist Courtland Milloy, who drew on his years of police experience (zero) to opine: “A cop who thinks a suspect is uppity is also likely to feel threatened. And that’s all it takes to justify hurting you.” Uppity? Wow, that’s a weighty word, Courtland.
How can this be? How can an honors student end up bloody under the knee of a cop? A student who the bar bouncer now says was “cordial and respectful” and not belligerent at the time his identification was questioned and he was denied entry into Trinity Irish Pub by bar staff?
Hmmm. Why would someone act sweet to sneak into a bar, and act up when cops call him on it? How could this be? And could a bar try to distance itself from the mayhem it caused by refusing Johnson’s entry in the first place?
Here is what little we actually know: The Associated Press reports that the ABC issued a statement saying that “uniformed ABC Agents observed and approached” an unidentified individual “after he was refused entry to a licensed establishment” about 12:45 a.m. at an area of bars and restaurants near the UVa campus known as “the Corner.” The man who recorded the video, Bryan Beaubrun, told AP that Johnson was trying to get into the Trinity Irish Pub when he was stopped by a bouncer. According to Beaubrun, an ABC officer then grabbed Johnson by the arm and pulled him away from the bar to speak with a group of police officers. After about a minute, Johnson asked the ABC officer to let go of his arm and tried pulling away from the officer. At that point, another ABC officer grabbed Johnson from behind and the two ABC officers wrestled Johnson to the ground. Beaubrun said Johnson hit his head on the ground.
There is no racial component here other than the insults shouted by an angry arrestee. But that still doesn’t stop the press from inserting one. Today’s Post reports that Governor McAuliffe, “spurred by the violent arrest of a black college student by white Alcoholic Beverage Control officers,” ordered the ABC to undergo retraining. I hope the training includes avoiding hard suspension parts of the bus they’ve been thrown under.
The jury is still out on this incident (far too early to even think about a jury.) Johnson, a member of the UVa Honor Committee and Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, was charged with misdemeanor obstruction of justice without force and public swearing/intoxication. The Governor has asked the State Police to investigate the arrest, a showy overreaction but politically pretty. For some reason, UVa Vice President Marcus Martin told CNN that he knew an alcohol test performed on Johnson post-arrest was negative, though he also said he had no test results, according to the Chicago Sun Times.
I wrote in an earlier column that after reading the Department of Justice report on misconduct in Ferguson, Missouri, I can no longer simply defend police, blindly and prematurely guess at justification for questioned conduct based on my hope that the cops acted properly. So I await an investigation, a court appearance with testimony from sworn, actual witnesses. Too bad the media and the angry public it incites cannot do the same.
And what a hero, the guy who filmed the aftermath of the arrest, heard screaming, “Yo, he’s bleeding,” at least four times while filming instead of calling an ambulance with, um, the phone he was filming with.
Oh, that’s right. Calling the ambulance, that’s the cops’ job.