Archive for March 2015
(continued from yesterday…)
The first thing I did was call the LGPD and ask if there was a form to fill out to file a complaint against an officer. Despite a number of phone calls throughout the end of the summer, I never got a direct answer to that question. The most I got was a hand-off to someone else in the department. The first person was Lieutenant Gritzner, who told me he was aware of my encounter from July Fourth and that I was correct in that Officer Buchburger should have identified herself to me upon request. He also intimated that he had spoken to her. I initially took that at face value, but now I doubt that conversation ever took place.
I next talked to Sergeant Hall and informed him that I planned to register a complaint against Officer Ward, and asked him what procedure I needed to follow. He told me I could tell him about it over the phone. That wasn’t going to work because it would be too easy for him to tell me whatever I wanted to hear, say he’d speak to Officer Ward, and then do nothing at all. I have little doubt that has happened before with the LGPD, and is probably their preferred operating procedure so as to give the appearance of accountability.
I ended up writing my complaint and sending it by registered mail to the LGPD and a Lake Geneva city councilman. That advice came from a website I consulted that explained when you make this kind of noise, the police can’t ignore it. Plus, the registered mail proves that all parties received the communication. You know, in case the police would ever dream up a scheme to say they never received a complaint.
Soon enough, I got a call from Sergeant Hall requesting my video footage of the interaction that shows Officer Ward threatening to break my phone and his other antagonistic behaviors. It seemed a dubious request to me since Officer McNutt assured me during the encounter that they were filming me. Nonetheless, I stuck a CD-ROM in the mail that showed what happened, along with a note about contacting me by mail.
What I got instead was a voice mail from Officer Hall telling me about Officer Ward’s right to seize my phone and what would have happened had I been arrested. None of what he said was relevant to my complaint. Those issues were never in question or even brought up by me, plus he was contradicting what Officer Ward confirmed with me during the encounter: That I have the right to record him performing his duty. So, I wrote another letter; this one to the Chief of Police. I made it clear that it feels like the LGPD is actively working to hide things, and regardless of how true that is, he needs to know that that is the perception. I asked him to look into the situation described in my initial complaint.
Chief Rasmussen handed the issue off to Assistant Chief Reuss, whose letter back to me stated:
“After a thorough investigation, I find that the actions taken by Officer Ward, Officer McNutt, and Officer Buchberger were lawful and showed no personal bias.”
Once again, the response I received had little to do with what I registered in my complaint. My complaint never mentioned the two other officers; nor did the issue of “personal bias” ever come up. Another thing he wrote gave me pause:
“I would never discourage a person from seeking resolution from a matter that concerns them, however my obligation remains to fairly and objectively view the information received.”
It wasn’t the mangled grammar and punctuation that caught my attention; rather, it was the absurdity of the statement. Of course he would never discourage people to seek resolution because he, and most everyone I encountered in the LGPD, seems practiced in running people around under the guise of internal accountability until they give up from frustration. It’s interesting to note, too, that the words “malicious threat” and “antagonizing behaviors” were never said by anybody but me. It seemed as if the use of those phrases by the LGPD would give them legitimacy.
In the end, I’m left thinking that accountability means little to the LGPD, and in that regard they are no different than far too many other police forces. I can’t see that situation changing until the idea of police monitoring themselves is abandoned. Thankfully, the police in general are on the nation’s social radar and we might start to see some significant changes in how law enforcement is managed. It’s too bad this hyper-awareness had to come at such a high price in numerous places around the country. Thankfully, my episode is little more than a $90 annoyance. Still, a lot more needs to be done to reduce my skepticism. And as far as building any amount of respect for the Lake Geneva Police Department, that might never happen.
(continued from yesterday…)
I’ve not made any attempt over the last few years to hide my skepticism regarding the police. I even wrote herein about an encounter I had with a Michigan State Police officer five years ago. I’ve had a pair of speeding tickets since then, so my personal business with the police has been minimal. What happened in Lake Geneva came well before any of the other highly publicized police disasters of last summer, and I’m grateful that my story is little else than a blip on a radar screen; still, it was my experience, and it was distasteful, and I think it’s worth writing about in the context of the current state of the police in our country.
My geographic location and reading habits are most responsible for my skepticism in regard to law enforcement. Lake County has been rattled by several police corruption and forced confession cases the last few years, one of which directly impacted a person with whom I work. Another case now appears to be tagged with police manufacturing evidence to impugn someone, and just two weeks ago another person who was falsely convicted based on a forced confession was released. My tax dollars are wasted because of these episodes, which really only amount to police wanting to look like they are doing their jobs and getting whatever numbers they need to please mayors who are hitching political campaigns to being tough on crime regardless of the legitimacy of the law enforcement tactics that get them their numbers. Add to these other cases I’ve read about in The New Yorker: another forced confession in the Chicago area that was recently resolved, a recent article about police killings in Alburqueque, NM (Rolling Stone covered the same issue the same week as The New Yorker), the constitutionality of stop-and-frisk policies, and malicious prosecution of an innocent teenager. Pile on what has recently been covered in The New Yorker and The Washington Post regarding civil seizure, and then the jackass who got national attention when he wrote I’m a Cop. If You Don’t Want to Get Hurt, Don’t Challenge Me, and I’ve got to wonder: How can a person not have a healthy amount of skepticism for law enforcement?
A few days after the unpleasantness on the shores of Geneva Lake, I reviewed the video I shot on my phone. I discovered exactly how many times I had asked Officer Buchburger to identify herself (five), and was able to hear again what Officer Ward had said to me. One of his first comments was that I would have to lower my phone because it could be a weapon. He also threatened to break it if I didn’t comply. His aggressiveness presented two problems. One, the phone is not a weapon, but Officer Ward had probably been trained to say exactly what he said so that he would have a modicum of defense if he was brought under investigation for anything that may have happened during the encounter. It was obviously a catchphrase of sorts that would keep him safe regardless of how ridiculous it seemed. What’s more, police officers don’t have the right to threaten harm to a person or a person’s property to get them to stop asserting their rights. Even if the phone had been a weapon, it wouldn’t have been broken at his whimsy; it would have been confiscated and put into evidence.
Later during the encounter, Officer Ward told me, “I’m gonna ask you again to keep your hands out of your pockets. You could have a weapon.” I did have my right hand in my pocket, as is my habit at times when I speak with people, but he was being antagonistic. He’d never asked me to take my hand out in the first place. After viewing the video, I was left wondering why he had never asked me if I had a weapon, or why he never frisked me. Not that either approach would have yielded any results—I didn’t have a weapon. It’s obvious in hindsight, though, that this is all de regueur for the police to try to escalate episodes to justify force.
I was incensed enough after watching my video to register a complaint against Officer Ward. I found lots of tips online about how to do that, and also uncovered some unexpected things about the public’s reaction to the antagonistic police state that has emerged in our country. It turns out that YouTube is flooded with videos people have uploaded that show police misbehavior, antagonism, and illegal brutality. It doesn’t surprise me that such an ocean of video exists—I just never had cause to search for them. I’ve come to think of this trend as a populace reaction to the television show Cops! Furthermore, there are fledgling organizations like Copwatch that were founded to do exactly what its name says. Judging by the tons of videos they have on YouTube, the folks at Copwatch aren’t popular with the police.
Last July Fourth could have gone better. I was in Lake Geneva along the lake shore enjoying the day with some friends. I had fired up the grill and was preparing to do some chicken and shrimp when Officers McNutt and Buchburger stopped by to tell me that grilling in the park was a violation of the city public burning ordinance. I countered that the City of Lake Geneva website said something different. The officers contended that grilling is only allowed in one park somewhere away from the lake shore. I showed them on my phone what I had read on the City of Lake Geneva website that led me to believe that what I was doing was fine:
Grilling & Other Fires: Fires for cooking are permitted in picnic areas, but only in grills provided or in a suitable device that contains the fire up off the ground. A permit must be obtained from the Fire Chief for any other fires within a public park.
I found nothing that indicated what a picnic area was, precisely, and thus believed what I was doing was fine. For that matter, I assumed that the dozen or so other groups in the immediate area who also had grills going read the same thing and interpreted it as I had.
It turned out that officers McNutt and Buchburger weren’t in the mood for deliberation, and especially weren’t in the mood for me to be asserting myself. Officer Buchburger seemed to be the most peeved (or at least quickest to rile when I didn’t acquiesce to her authority), and began demanding that I show her my ID so she could know who she was talking to.
I refused to produce an ID and told her she could call me “Sir” if she needed to address me. I suspected her real plan was to hold my ID to inconvenience me or check for warrants, probably both, to see if she could escalate things and have an excuse to be more aggressive in her enforcement of the law. After her second demand, I got out my phone and began recording what was happening. She refused several times to identify herself, and wasn’t wearing a badge that would identify her.
I realized I was in deeper than I wanted to be, and capitulated regarding the grill. We packed up our things and prepared to leave the park. Officers McNutt and Buchburger demanded that I stay. I asked if I was being detained. They said I was. I asked why, and they said because I had violated the public burning ordinance and they would have to cite me. I had extinguished my grill, though, so I told them I wasn’t violating the ordinance. They planned to cite me anyhow, not because of the grill at this point but, as far as I could tell, because I didn’t respect their authority and the citation was all they had to grasp at. They couldn’t cite me of their own accord, however, since in addition to not having badges, they also didn’t have ticket books with them.
I didn’t make it out of the park before Officer Ward showed up in his patrol car. In short time, Officer Ward threatened to break my phone, ran a background check on me, cited me for public burning, and made an all-around solid effort to antagonize me since he, too, seemed unhappy that I was asserting my rights and asking questions at every turn about why he was doing what he was doing. My guess was that, much like Officer Buchburger, he was hoping to goad me into reacting so he could be more aggressive in how he was enforcing the law.
I left the park about thirty minutes later with my grill and a $90 fine. What happened was only the start of an experience that has left me thinking that the Lake Geneva police do a lot more to reinforce negative police stereotypes than they do to effectively police the public and themselves.