Sunday, January 4, 2009

Police Hubris

Imagine a 12 year old girl. She's in Galveston, Texas. It's August; she's wearing shorts. Because it is August, in Texas. In her area of Texas, there have been a rash of highly publicized child abductions; in fact, a Houston police investigator, Holly Whillock, went on record stating that in addition to warning children "never to talk with a stranger or get into a car with one", "kids should also be told, run, fight back, scream and stay outside grabbing range". Now, imagine that she's in her front yard, in her shorts, on her way to flip the switch to the house's breaker. And that in the meanwhile, a van pulls up, three men jump out, and one of them grabs her while saying, "You're a prostitute. You're coming with me." As a 12 year old, what should she do?

This 12 year old did not go docilely. Unlike other children - say, me at 12 - she did not become paralyzed in the moment. She clung to a tree and cried for her father. For her trouble, she was beaten "about the face and throat" so severely she ended up in the hospital. And while in normal circumstances, she would be heralded as one of those quick-witted children who was able to escape from her abductor, in this case she was arrested - along with her father. Because the three men who tried to grab Dymond Milburn were plain clothed police officers. They were looking for three white prostitutes in the area; but Dymond Milburn is black. And as far as I can tell, standing in your own yard in shorts in August anywhere south (and a heck of a lot of places north) of the Mason Dixon line does not lend to the immediate assumption of prostitution.

What could possibly be the justification of arresting a girl and her father? In this case, that "it's unfortunate that sometimes police officers have to use force against people who are using force against them. And the evidence will show that both these folks violated the law and forcefully resisted arrest". Now, I'm not fully up on the laws regarding resisting arrest in Texas - or in Connecticut for that matter. What I do know about things like this, I have gleaned from Law & Orders' various incarnations and clones. What I do know is this: Miranda Rights, even in this day and age of Law & Orders, is a must when attempting to arrest someone. Two, generally, police officers identify themselves as such before attempting to make an arrest. Three, there is such a thing as undue force, and hitting a child who is clinging to a tree would probably fall under that.

Even without the string of abductions and attempted abductions in the area, I can't imagine any child willingly and knowingly going with anyone who declared that they were a prostitute. I can't imagine many children who would not be justified in running off, or any parent who would not attempt to extract their child from an unidentified adult's grip. The idea that the police department feel justified in charging Dymond and her father for attacking them after someone from another police department advocated doing just that is just ludicrous to me. I can't help but suspect that the Milburn's race plays a part in the incident, along with police hubris. I don't think every police officer or even a majority of police officers believe themselves to be above the law; and again, all I have to go on here is the various shows dramatizing law enforcement, which counts for less than even anecdotal evidence. But there seems to be more than just a little truth to the idea of closing ranks, of protecting fellow officers after they've pulled some egregiously stupid moves, and that a few bad apples plus loyalty induced by the badge sometimes equals a miscarriage of justice. And that seems to be what happened here. Dymond Milburn wasn't the same race as the suspects in question. The only indication she was a prostitute was that she was outside and wearing shorts. And I won't even venture a guess as to what was going through the officers' minds at the time of the arrest, because no good or logical or rational or plausible explanation is coming to mind and I would like to assume that there may be one.

What this case called for was not arresting an honor student for assaulting a police officer; from what I can tell, the police department would have been better served by putting the officers in question on probation while investigating the incident and issuing a formal apology to Dymond and her father while also assuming the costs of Dymond's hospital visit. Officers screw up; sometimes badly. Officers are only human; but their mistakes should not be justified or unpunished by the department of justice due to the actions of those immediately affected by the injustice implemented by said officers. The department needs to and should have looked beyond a quick and easy way to blame the victim and assumed the position that a fair and balanced institution should take. Now, there could be a zero-sum argument stating that if these two went uncharged, that it would set a precedent for others who assaulted an officer or who resisted arrest to look to; but there are often exceptions to rules. And if the police screwed up as badly as they seemed to have, then they would have been better served  to have owned the screw up.

Because now Dymond Milburn and her neighbors have more reasons to not trust the police, to think that police officers in general and the justice department in particular are biased, unfair, and unbalanced. That the civilian is always lower on the totem pole than the officer. And that African-Americans are still profiled by police officers and are still not subject to the same justice as their white compatriots. Whether or not any of those things are empirically true (and I would say that in some cases and places, certain ones certainly are), that is the way it will be perceived. But perhaps even more important than how these events may be perceived is how these events have affected the accused in particular, how being grabbed and beaten by the very people who are paid to protect and serve her and her community has affected Dymond Milburn. For the trauma she suffered alone, the police department should have put aside their hubris and their privilege and acknowledged the fact that their own put an innocent 12 year old in the hospital, simply for doing what she should have been doing in the event she was grabbed off of her front lawn by anyone she didn't know.


Breck Porter said...

Everything in your blog comes from the lawsuit filed by a local, civil rights lawyer who frequently sues the police department.
You failed to report that this happened almost three years ago and the statute of limitations is about to run out, a tactic purposely planned by the lawyer.
You failed to report that during this three year period neither the lawyer nor the plantiffs has ever filed a complaint with the police department over this so-called incident.
You failed to note that the father is a known drug dealer.
You failed to note that it is not unusal for adult drug dealers to use their own children as mules, to deliver drugs. It is also not unusual for drug addicts/dealers to prostitute minors.
I trust that when the true facts of this case are made public, you are as enthusiastic about reporting it as you are now.
Breck Porter, Galveston

mikhailbakunin said...

I don't know anything about this particular case beyond what I've just read, but I know that police don't have to Mirandize suspects upon arrest. Over the past few years, the Supreme Court has really chipped away at Miranda and given states far more statutory discretion.

I also agree with Breck Porter that the details cited in the lawsuit shouldn't be taken on faith - they're no more objective than the details in the internal police report, which cleared the officers of any wrongdoing.

It's difficult to know the actual circumstances here, so I think it's best to reserve judgment.

John said...

While I have to admit that Breck Porter's information, if true, would slightly mitigate the circumstances of this incident, I was under the impression that police officers couldn't arrest someone for prostitution without a measure of evidence beyond "she was wearing short shorts" and "her father deals drugs." If that's all they need, why use undercover cops at all? Did they need the element of surprise to be able to subdue a preteen girl?

I'm not swayed by the fact that the plaintiffs did not file a complaint with the police department. If the police are indeed corrupt, there's no reason to think your complaint will do anything other than renew their interest in harming you.

Hopefully more information will be uncovered before this is all over.