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One Arizona case shows why criminal justice reform is needed

An appalling incident from 2017 in Glendale, Arizona popped into the news over the weekend based on those events becoming the subject of a federal lawsuit. The attention grabber is the tasing of a man during a traffic stop, including pulling down his shorts and tasing him in the testicles after he was handcuffed.

The video is every bit as bad as it sounds in terms of the behavior of law enforcement.

To be clear, this was not simply an encounter with law enforcement gone a little bad. It was exceptional. The original news story link includes a helpful, detailed review of the body cam footage by experts expressing repeated concerns with how the incident was handled from start to finish. In summary:

Multiple independent law enforcement experts, who agreed to review the incident, said the officers’ conduct was unlawful, potentially criminal, and one of the most cruel and troubling cases of police misconduct they’ve ever seen.

“I have never seen anything like this before,” said Jeff Noble, an attorney and former deputy chief of police in Irvine, Calif., who’s testified in hundreds of cases including Tamir Rice and Philando Castile. “ It reminds me of a case in New York where an individual was sadistically taking a broom handle and shoving it up (the suspect’s) anus. This is just beyond the pale. It’s outrageous conduct.”

Former LAPD detective supervisor T.T. Williams echoed his shock.

“That’s not even borderline,” said Williams, an expert witness who testified in the Philip Brailsford case on behalf of the prosecution. “That’s inhumane.”

One might think, gee, this is just a really terrible thing, but it must be a total aberration. In truth, the case, while on the extreme in some sense, highlights a number of issues at the fore of calls for criminal justice reform, specifically relating to how law enforcement conducts itself and likewise holds itself accountability.

1. Officers initiated an unnecessary confrontation. The victim, Johnny Wheatcroft, was a passenger in a vehicle, wearing his seat belt, ostensibly pulled over for a turn signal violation. Officers had no probably cause to question Wheatcroft. They insisted on seeing his ID. He justly declined, as was his legal right. The incident escalated from there.

2. Officers used excessive force. Needless to saying, attempting to pull someone from the car while he’s still wearing his seat belt, ultimately tasing him 11 times, including after he was already handcuffed is a bad look.

3. Officers used inhumane force, in fact. There is no remotely justifiable cause once a suspect is handcuffed to intentionally pull down their shorts and tase their genitals. An officer committing such an act likely shouldn’t wear the uniform again…more on that shortly.

4. The victims in the case were held in jail for months before charges were dropped:

Wheatcroft and [his wife] Chapman , who were arrested and charged with aggravated assault on a police officer, spent months in jail after the incident because they couldn’t afford bail.

Chapman agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge in order to get home to her children, her attorneys said.

The poor disproportionately suffer because a ludicrous system of cash bail keeps (still legally innocent) people who aren’t a risk to society behind bars for lack of personal financial means. Rather than continue suffer in such circumstances because of the needs of life, Chapman plead to a lesser charge just to get out to her children.

5. Charges were dropped but the accused still paid a steep price. Local prosecutors understandably dropped charges after seeing the body cam footage of the incident, but months in jail and an ultimately unnecessary guilty plea are an awful lot of punishment for being innocent.

6. Law enforcement tried to cover it up. Clearly, charges of assaulting an officer were not appropriate and tardily dropped. But an internal investigation found officers present incorrectly described the incident, including noting the victim of the tasing was “compliant and didn’t resist.” Moreover, even the Glendale Police Department’s press release over last weekend was found to be “full of omissions and information that does not match up with the department’s own records.” All of which is both discomfiting and a very bad look for public confidence.

7. Discipline of law enforcement was wholly inadequate. That same internal investigation found the tasing officer demonstrated “major performance deficiencies” in violation of multiple procedures and guidelines. His punishment? A laughable 30-hour suspension without pay and disciplinary probation. Anyone who thinks that slap on the wrist is appropriate probably thinks the cop who shot Philando Castille was also innocent.

There have been may calls for criminal justice reform in wake of troubling citizen encounters, more publicly available today in the era of body cams and cell phones, with police resulting in unnecessary injury or death. Perhaps sometimes those who are averse to the politics of Black Lives Matter and other such advocacy groups find it easier to dismiss such calls.

There is no racial component to this case, just horrible policing. Policing that must be reformed and improved before the public loses more confidence in law enforcement.

This shouldn’t be a partisan issue.  National Review‘s David French has written well on the evolution of his thinking on this topic, including the need to end “qualified immunity” that too often protects bad actors in law enforcement. The Charles Koch Institute includes criminal justice reform among its top issues, as does the quite conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Indeed, when someone’s rights and freedoms are as badly violated by police as Johnny Wheatcroft’s, the color of his skin and the partisan political implications shouldn’t matter in the least.

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