Wednesday, February 21, 2007

FOC Firing Squads?

A Federal District Court Judge ruled that it is against the law for an officer to shoot a father in the back for a misdemeanor child support charge. More evidence of a program that is lacking sufficient administrative and legal controls, where even the officers have become the executioners of the corrupted legal system.

Judge: Officer violates suspect's civil rights, must pay $558,026
By The Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK -- A Kensett police officer violated a suspect's rights during a 2005 attempt to arrest the man on misdemeanor charges and the officer should pay more than a half-million dollars, a federal judge says. U.S. District Judge Leon Holmes ruled against Officer Mark Wages in a lawsuit filed by Jerry Lee Cooperwood after Cooperwood was shot in the back and side by the officer almost two years ago. The judge noted Cooperwood was unarmed and did not have a history of violence.

"It is undisputed that Cooperwood never hit Wages," the judge said in his order Friday. "A reasonable officer in Wages' position would have known that shooting Cooperwood as he was running away violated the law."The judge said the officer violated Cooperwood's freedom from unreasonable search and seizure and his rights to due process. Holmes awarded Cooperwood $558,026.91 to cover his pain, suffering and mental anguish, plus medical bills.

Ok. I know that the FOC in Arkansas does not have a set policy of shooting deadbeat parents, at least not literally. This case probably shows the lack of control and professionalism on an individual officer's part more than it does on FOC procedures, but this officer's conduct does reflect the overall attitude of law enforcement and child support collection agencies. More and more, overwhelming force is being applied to warrants and arrests of parents past due on support payments, regardless of circumstances. This overkill is also seen in other places as well i.e. traffic warrant, delinquent tax bills, and for failure to appear in court. That discussion is a larger issue, perhaps better suited for another post.

I am more than willing to give law enforcement the benefit of the doubt. It is not an easy job trying to keep human beings under control and in line with the law. There are a lot of non-custodial parents, and yes, mostly fathers, (because so few are ever considered for custody-another problem) who often deliberately decide not to support their children. Those men need to be held accountable, yet their neglect, rotten as it is, does not warrant a blitzkreig attack endangering the lives of both violator and police or court officer. It makes no sense and certainly, no Constitutional sense, to treat misdemeanor violations with the same severity as one would rapists or bank robbers. Clearly, there are cases where well-meaning police officers step way over the line when doing what they believe is a good thing. I know that police have to use caution at all times, but they appear to 'protect and serve' each other more now than they ever have done for common citizens.

Being as active as I have been on FOC issues, I can relate dozens of stories of men arrested in the dead of night by police tactical units kicking in doors in order to serve misdemeanor warrants for non or overdue child support payments. In one instance, a West Highland terrier was beaten with a baton when the police forced their way into a man's home. (The man, after 30 days in jail, came home to find the decomposed corpse of his beloved companion.) One would think that this fellow was an armed serial killer raising pit bulls, but he was just an unlucky guy who suffered a work-related injury and was waiting for his compensation benefits to kick in. In the meantime, the FOC, at the behest of his ex-wife, issued an immediate warrant for his arrest. We have no idea what she told the officers to expect, but they could have knocked on his door at lunchtime to ask a few questions before springing a midnight ninja attack expecting mortal combat. At least give the guy a chance to go peaceably. The vast majority already do.

I still want to be fair to the police. There are cases where retaliation should be expected i.e. the delinquent parent has a history of violence. No one sane would suggest that a historically violent suspect should have to be gently coaxed into a waiting squad car by unarmed officers. Let the force be available if necessary. Yet, the blatant and premeptive use of force, excessive or otherwise, seems to be creating more problems than it solves. If a suspect imagines that he will be more than likely facing a physical threat from the officers, he will be more inclined to prepare himself for what he believes will be an inevitable confrontation.

The police and courts operate in small professional bubble and because of this subculture mentality, they commonly fall prey to the 'fallacy of vividness' which, in plain English, means that whatever happens anywhere in any courtroom, crime scene, or lock-up becomes that standard by which all agencies gauge their future behavior. It is a tunnel-vision of sorts. Due to this phenomenon, ALL suspects, no matter how docile, are treated as 'potentially' dangerous and, as instances of courthouse shootings escalate, so do the attitude toward even non-violent, honest citizens. I understand the worries of police and judges, but their culture doesn't concern itself with my safety, only my unquestioning obedience to their authority. Most of the time that isn't a problem.

Now, I don't think that Mr. Cooperwood is a nice guy, model citizen, or even a sympathetic victim, but the officer had no business shooting this man (in the back no less) who didn't threaten that officer's life or that of any other civilian. They could have reissued another warrant and picked him up another time. This is a good decision though that will hopefully put a little restraint on police violence against non-violent offenders and common citizens suspected of criminal acts. Similar suits were needed to curb police chases through populated areas. The overuse of police force is a huge problem everywhere, especially during protests and demonstrations, where tactical teams of militarized units routinely bully peaceful marchers. My hope is that such awards will curb this use of force. Likely, however, the police agencies will simply cry 'victim' and their aforementioned attitude problem will just get worse.

Mr. Cooperwood may be savoring his victory in federal court, but I'm sure that the Friend of the Court in his locale is already waiting for the check to clear so his children can get that which they rightfully deserve. I just hope he stops being an dumb asshole. We know the system is broken and that the odds of repairing it are slim to none. However, his being a deadbeat jackass will only make matters worse.

I also find it ironic that the officer's last name was "Wages".


(This case concerned 'misdemeanor' child support, which varies from state to state and is based upon the amount of support owed and length of delinquency. Felony child support, which carries a greater penalty, along with possible Federal charges, does not appear to be addressed in this decision.

The question remains: Should the police have the right to shoot a non-violent suspect/criminal for failure to pay a debt, should he choose to flee? Even if the charges are within the limits of a felony? Do we want law enforcement agencies to shoot people for being in debt? Arrest makes sense, incarceration makes sense, but shooting?)


Hrafnkel said...

Oh, the irony.

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