December 14th, 2011
Laws are funny things. Generally created out of some panicky necessity (usually the necessity of a politician to appear to be statesmanlike), they linger on long after the need has passed and often to the point of absurdity.
But sometimes rather than amusing and fairly harmless laws that reflect a cultural reality that has long passed, they become tools for abuse by police or other authorities who seek to achieve their own personal goals based in their own prejudices or ill intent. And that appears to be happening in Kent County, Michigan. Sheriff Larry Stelma is using a law written to address prostitution to “clean up” county parks.
750.448 Soliciting, accosting, or inviting to commit prostitution or immoral act; crime.
A person 16 years of age or older who accosts, solicits, or invites another person in a public place or in or from a building or vehicle, by word, gesture, or any other means, to commit prostitution or to do any other lewd or immoral act, is guilty of a crime punishable as provided in section 451.
(1) Except as otherwise provided in this section, a person convicted of violating section 448, 449, 449a, 450, or 462 is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for not more than 93 days or a fine of not more than $500.00, or both.
Stelma has decided that this is his justification for ridding the parks of gay men. And he’s taking a very broad interpretation of the code to do so.
He has decided that “accosts, solicits, or invites another person” includes responding to solicitation by an undercover police officer. And “commit prostitution or to do any other lewd or immoral act” includes flirting, holding hands, or inviting another person home or to another private location to pursue sexual activities. Or rather, it does if the target is a gay man.
And Stelma acknowledges that his officers are not interested in following the letter of the law, and especially not the spirit of the law, but in harassing targets that he knows full well are not committing a crime: (Mlive.com)
“There is a range of discernment there, but whatever that act or suggestion was has to be considered by a judge or jury as being lewd or immoral,” Stelma said. “Our community has invested heavily in the parks and they expect us to keep them safe, family-friendly places and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”
So Sheriff Stelma will arrest those whom he deems not to be “family-friendly” and parade them in front of the community for public shaming and condemnation. Oh, and if it was unwarranted, well then a judge can let them off the $500 penalty.
At Box Turtle Bulletin we do not endorse or defend sex in public or suggest that such acts should not be discouraged or punished when they occur. Half of the arrests reviewed by the ACLU were for activities that were criminal and that is appropriate.
But we also do not accept the assumption that being gay is a crime or that there is anything “family-friendly” about targeting gay people. And if an officer or police force is arresting gay people for things for which one would never arrest a heterosexual, they are engaging in criminal behavior themselves and are violating the civil rights of citizens.
Such tactics are not uncommon and the reason is clear. There is very little disincentive for police to engage in this form of selective and creative enforcement. Seldom are police chiefs reprimanded, much less fired. And there is little social cost resulting from their abuse of power.
Those who are hateful or fearful are happy that “that element” is remove from a “family park” and those who object are smirked at as being soft on crime and a seedy element themselves. And, of course, there is the internal reward of harming people whom the officer or leader considers inferior or less human. Truly, bigots love a good “round up the homos” police sting.
But the cost to their victims can be huge.
Often those who resort to meeting in a park are men who are closeted and afraid to go to a bar or look online. They will do anything, say anything, to avoid having their secrets become public. And it is on just such a fear that corrupt officers and police forces rely; the sheriff can hold the threat of being listed as a sex offender over their head to keep them from any public objection.
I’m really sick of this.
It has reached the point now that when I hear of any dispute between an officer and a civilian, I assume that the officer is simply engaging in police brutality. And sadly, I’m very seldom wrong.
And even more frustrating is the mindset that is universally shared by the police community: protection of their own before protection of the community. Even in the most extreme of cases. (OC Register)
Earlier this month, six Fullerton cops surrounded and savagely attacked an unarmed, 37-year-old Kelly Thomas until he was dead. By the time the cops were done, Thomas’ face looked like it had been put through a meat grinder.
Multiple witness say the cops repeatedly beat the 135-pound homeless man with their weapons, fired multiple Taser shots into his body, kicked his face and head with their boots and then, long after the man was subdued and on the ground, slammed their knees into his throat, apparently crushing it.
Thomas had committed no crime and it appears that the murder was for sport. Not one officer in the police force objected. The six were not put on suspension or reprimanded or even frowned at as a consequence of their action. In fact, it was not until the man’s father went to the internet and got the support of local radio hosts John and Ken that anyone knew about it or the department took up an investigation. And when John and Ken began reporting, the families of other police officers actually called up and tried to make excuses.
This was a murder committed on police time, in uniform, with police recorders running, and people watching. The victim was threatened and taunted and then beaten to death. And they didn’t care that they would be turning in “reports” or that their department would have access to the recordings. They already knew that they were protected from any consequence to any action – even murder – because they were police officers.
And when the Fullerton community erupted in anger and a few officers were finally arrested, guess who bailed out the primary murderer? Yep, his fellow officers.
This infuriates me.
The thing is that my instinct runs to ‘law and order’. I like having a police force to protect me. I like knowing that if someone breaks into my home or threatens me on the street or otherwise harms or endangers me, that there is someone to look out for me. And when people like Kent County Sheriff Larry Stelma abuse their office and bring shame to the process, it hurts those honest officers who try to do their job and protect the citizens.
But honest officers seem to be in short supply. And their honesty seems to come secondary to their loyalty to power and corruption. The “thin blue line” appears to have become an impenetrable boundary that breaks the world into two classes: “good guys” who murder citizens, and “perps” like you and me and homeless schizophrenics and closeted men in Michigan.
And I know that I’ll be told that “there are a lot of good officers”. Bull. Being a good officer means not only avoiding abuse yourself, but stopping it when others do it. And that simply doesn’t occur.
But this only happens because we allow it. We are afraid that if we stop police abuse that it will empower criminals and crooks. Unfortunately, we now are seeing that our fear has already empowered criminals and crooks – the ones wearing the uniform.
It needs to stop. We need to make it stop.
Perhaps it is time to implement a tool that police bullies use against the citizens. Perhaps it’s time to create a Police Brutality Offenders Registry and when an officer has been accused of abusing his power he goes on the registry. If you are surly or arrogant or dismissive of a citizen, it goes into the Registry. If someone dies at your hands, it goes into the Registry. If you are on a police board that excuses an officer or finds “justifiable” something that would result in jail time for anyone else, then your name goes into the Registry.
And people seeking to move into a new city or precinct can look up the Police Brutality Offenders Registry, just like they can the Sex Offenders Registry, to see just how safe their new community might be. “Great schools and few sex offenders, but the police are corrupt so we’ll not buy here.”
And perhaps it is time for society to withhold the respect afforded police until they have proven themselves worthy. They need to decide if they are peace officers or a police force, if they answer to the community first or to their loyalty to the uniform first. It isn’t enough, any more, to be honest officers themselves, it’s now time for them to insist that others in their ranks be honest or get out. And if their sergeant doesn’t like it, go the newspapers.
Until officers and police forces identify themselves as protectors of the citizenry, we must assume that they are not good people. If they cannot condemn the horrific acts in Fullerton in clear and unequivocal terms, if they cannot demonstrate that your civil rights are more important than ‘rousting the objectionables’, if they think that they are an exception and exempt from laws that prohibit murder, then we must assume that they are the enemies of law and order no different from a street gang.
I hate to assume guilt and corruption… but it seems that few police are willing or able to show otherwise.
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Part 5: A Candid Explanation For "Change"
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