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I have written previously on the importance of communication and how words matter. The term “peace officer” is sacrosanct to me. Its meaning is lofty, an ideal to consistently strive for, denoting service before self both to those you work with, but most importantly to your community. I can’t say that I always hit the mark during my career, yet I believe that by consistently thinking of myself as a “peace officer” – not a police officer – I managed to walk away from my career with my compassion and sense of justice intact.
In the aftermath of the media scrutiny surrounding the verdict in the Kelly Thomas case, the media and bloggers have missed an opportunity to ask the question of not just how this happened, but what kind of police department should we have? Manuel Ramos’ attorney John Barnett clearly won the legal argument, as the jury believed him when he stated both during closing statements and to the press, “These peace officers were doing their jobs … they did what they were trained to do.” Barnett’s use of the word “peace officer” was deliberate and was repeated by both the print and broadcast media. It was meant to portray the police actions that evening as not both necessary, but “just” in an effort to uphold our mandate and fundamental duty to serve our communities.
Yet his client’s actions, as well as the Fullerton Police Department that night, were not consistent with the history of law enforcement and the true meaning of what it means to be a peace officer. Sir Robert Peel, the father of modern policing, developed ethical principles that clarified the roles and relationship of police and the public they serve. He posited that “The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.” Going by the outcry from not only Orange County in the wake of this incident, but across the world, the public’s support and trust of law enforcement is waning, and with it, the moral authority from which it derives it power.
I am not anti-police, I don’t say this lightly, or in the spirit of being “fashionable.” I just need to point out the significant disconnect between Barnett’s use of the term “peace officer” and the policing action that occurred in Fullerton on the night of July 5, 2011.
Manuel Ramos and others relinquished the title of “peace officers” to become fascist caricatures that will forever tarnish the law enforcement profession. This relinquishment consisted of not only intentional acts but of acts of omission as well. It was Ramos’ specific interactions with Kelly Thomas that evening that escalated the incident. It was the casualness of his words and his body language, as well as the display of his baton in a threatening fashion, which tells me that this was not the first time that he had behaved in this manner, and as with all competent bad guys, this just happened to be the first time he got caught.
This is in essence is what repulses me about the jury verdict: They gave the benefit of the doubt to a police officer not worthy of the “peace officer” designation in either his words or actions. By granting him this privilege they implied that his actions contributing to the death of an innocent man were within the scope of not just policy, but the law. We can quibble all we want on the merits of the jury instructions: Did Kelly pose an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others? I would say no. Was Kelly actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight? I would say no to that as well, yet it was here that the law was subject to interpretation as the jurors heard Rackauckas acknowledge in closing statements that Kelly MAY have taken an abandoned backpack, potentially engaging in a minor crime. Here, in my opinion, is where the jurors hung their acquittal hat, ignoring any issues relative to the severity of the crime, and accepting at face value that there was an attempt to evade arrest while ignoring the instinctual response of self-preservation.
There are no words to express that convey my anger as the Rule Of Law that I once saw as good and noble was twisted and turned to protect those who don’t deserve its protection. This anger brought me back to asking not just what the purpose of policing is, but to what type of person we want doing that job. It made me think about Socrates, as he reflected on this very question challenging the government, saying,
“There you are mistaken: a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong – acting the part of a good man or of a bad.”
For me it’s crystal clear, the system failed not just Kelly Thomas, but our society as a whole. No longer can I view the law enforcement profession as I once did, when I believed that our standard was acting the part of a “good man.” So in order to make the death of Kelly have meaning we must ensure that we challenge our elected officials and our law enforcement leaders every day demanding professionalism, ethical conduct, and a system that provides both transparency and accountability. I’ve said this before, but Kelly’s death was not an anomaly – it was simply an extreme example of what happens on the streets every day – but without our input we will only continue to receive the sort of policing services that our apathy enables.
The public has crossed the Rubicon on public support of law enforcement actions (even if this questionable jury verdict might suggest otherwise.) It is the culture of law enforcement as well as the criminal justice system that requires change. An immediate first step would be to re-emphasize the “peace” in policing. We have seemed to have forgotten that our job is not just to police people but to serve all our constituents in a manner that does not betray the public trust. Rest in peace, Kelly. It is my sincere hope that you will be a rallying symbol to affect change in a system calling out for a new meaning of justice.