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Bob Franken: The rules of the rule of law

Posted: August 23, 2014 - 2:28pm

Let’s face it: We have a law-enforcement problem in this country. Far too often, the people who are supposed to protect us from the bad guys ARE the bad guys. Thanks to the widespread use of video devices, or perhaps because of them, we have witnessed a rash of violent encounters: one of New York City’s finest on July 17 used a banned chokehold on Eric Garner, whose main crime seemed to be that he was arguing that the cops were hassling him.

Earlier in the same month, a California Highway Patrol officer was taped repeatedly punching a homeless woman he had thrown to the ground after she was spotted by him walking on a roadway.

And of course, we have the situation in Ferguson, Missouri. Law-enforcement forces, seemingly on a rampage at times, have been charged with overreacting to a few troublemakers while grossly mismanaging the protests of the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown, who was black, by white Ferguson policeman Darren Wilson. In the aftermath, their efforts to contain the spreading violence, which they arguably share the blame for inciting with their heavy-handed tactics, have included arrests of journalists covering the mess.

What is most tragic about these incidents is that they seem to have become routine. We are constantly being exposed to images or reports of abuse by those who are supposed to protect us — all of us — without regard to race or economic status. Statistics show, however, that a wildly disproportionate share of arrests, traffic stops and searches are conducted against minorities. That is totally unacceptable in a country that promises equal justice.

It is also an embarrassment on the world stage. The New York Times recently compiled a catalog of criticisms from officials in Iran, Egypt and Russia, who charge that U.S. complaints about their human-rights deficiencies amount to sanctimonious hypocrisy.

It’s important to note that the vast majority of policemen and -women are dedicated to enforcing the law in a fair and compassionate way. They endure low pay and tremendous hassles, and face constant danger to make sure we enjoy a safe and orderly society. Sad to say, their superhuman efforts are sullied by a small number of uniformed bullies who seem to think they can mete out brutal violence without accountability whenever someone questions their authority or judgment.

The Michael Brown reaction has featured raised hands and people yelling “I surrender. Don’t shoot!” It has spread even to the point that a few members of the Washington NFL team came onto the field with their hands up. It was dramatic, although it might have been more so if they weren’t playing for and accepting big money from a team whose R-word name is a hateful slur against Native Americans.

Unfortunately, it’s not just some police who run roughshod. Every once in a while, we catch prosecutors in the act. The ease with which they can gain indictments using low standards of proof occasionally causes a district attorney with an agenda to misuse his or her power. It’s often said that, with a malleable grand jury, a prosecutor “can indict a ham sandwich.” In one current case, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is the ham. Usually, the Texas governor would not be portrayed as a victim — his policies draw scorn for ranging from cruel to misguided to blowhard — but suddenly he is. After being charged with a criminal offense by a Democratic district attorney for using his veto power to try to force out a colleague who was arrested for driving while seriously under the influence, Perry is now a GOP hero, his booking mug shot a badge of honor. It’s just the latest example of prosecutorial abuse.

We cannot exist as a stable country with perception that our freedom and economic well-being can be threatened by an arbitrary law-enforcement system. That’s the definition of a police state.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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