Charlotte, NC — The tableau is quite familiar: Eight uniformed officers surround a prone suspect, at least two of them pinning their captive to the ground as another barks orders at him, punctuating his demands with blows to his back. The suspect, twenty-six-year-old Malcolm Glenn Elliott II, has been charged with several offenses, including hit-and-run, driving with a revoked license, and — of course — resisting arrest.
In the Charlotte-Mecklenburg PD’s version of the incident, Elliott “resisted as officers attempted to restrain him and continued to pull his arms away from officers as they attempted to place him in handcuffs. One officer delivered strikes to the suspect’s back in an effort to gain compliance and take him into custody.” The citizen who captured the arrest on video, and provided it to Charlotte CBS affiliate WBTV, testifies that Elliott complied with police demands and sprawled on the ground before being surrounded by the officers. The brief video excerpt doesn’t corroborate the official claim that Elliot resisted in any way, apart from his initial flight. Despite this he was still on the receiving end of summary punishment for his earlier non-compliance.
To its credit, the CMPD has actually prosecuted officers who have abused suspects. In 2014, charges were filed against Officer Jason Alexander Van Aken after he slammed a handcuffed and leg-shackled suspect into a cinder-block wall. Terance Germaine Malachi, who had been arrested for carrying a concealed handgun, suffered a broken collarbone. Although he was arrested and placed on unpaid leave, Van Aken still enjoyed an element of Blue Privilege. Rather than facing a felony after inflicting injuries requiring hospitalization, Van Aken was charged with two misdemeanor. If convicted, he would most likely avoid jail time, and remain eligible for employment as a law enforcement officer.
“My client didn’t commit any crime … he was simply performing his duties as a police officer,” insisted defense attorney Robert Foster, reciting from the cop’s catechism of self-justification. From the perspective of the state’s privileged purveyors of official violence, Foster spoke the truth: Many, perhaps most, police officers are indoctrinated in what might be called the “Judge Dredd” perspective on the law: Their role is not merely to investigate crimes and detain suspects for trial, but to impose summary punishment whenever possible — and wherever they can get away with it.
“I served as a state police officer in Alabama for six years from 1986 to 1993, and I have some very helpful, life-saving advice to share with both young ones and adults,” wrote Hudson, who is black. “Every move you make has consequences, and you can make one move, and never recover.” His first piece of advice is: Don’t run.
“Although running from the police should not be a death sentence, it often ends up this way. So don’t do it!” Hudson urges. “Doing so will heighten the aggression of an officer, especially if [he] is not sure if you are armed.”
In the cases described above, of course, neither suspect was armed; one of them was shackled and in custody at police headquarters. Neither of those assaults was carried out in the name of that holiest and most precious of all things, “officer safety.” They were acts of opportunistic violence without legal justification, inflicted to chastise people viewed as the “enemy” rather than citizens suspected of an offense whose rights are to be protected and whose guilt or innocence is to be determined by the courts.
Whatever happens in cases involving excessive force on the part of its officers, the CMPD is moving beyond summary punishment to a species of extra-judicial summary imprisonment –that is, restraining freedom of movement without due process. The department is drafting an ordinance that would create so-called “safe zones” that would be designated by the police chief. Anybody arrested within such a zone would be prohibited from returning unless he or she is acquitted of the charge. The subject would be able to appeal his or her banishment within a five-day period, and the ban might be lifted if the arrestee is caring for children or employed within the zone.
“These so-called `public safety zones’ are in reality exclusion zones, as they are referred to in legal research, because that’s what they are: areas designed to exclude people,” writes local public defense attorney Chrissie Beth. CMPD attorney Mark Newbold concedes that the proposal confronts “significant constitutional hurdles,” a point upon which Beth elaborates at length.
“The glaring constitutional issue is the exclusion zones’ effect on a person’s freedom of movement and freedom of association,” she observes. The practical crime-reduction benefits of the zones are dubious at best, but they would inevitably encroach on “a substantial amount of innocent conduct … including visiting family, attending church, going to the grocery store, talking with friends on the sidewalk, going for a walk, or spending a few quiet moments in a park.”
Exclusion zones involve routine violations of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. The Double Jeopardy clause, which “protects us from receiving more than one punitive sentence for any given offense,” would be violated in cases involving a criminal conviction. For those in which charges are dropped, punishment would have been imposed without due process of law.
Establishment of “exclusion zones” institutionalizes a culture of summary punishment, albeit of a less lurid variety than a video-recorded police beating. Of course and enforcing them will create expanded opportunities for summary punishment of the more familiar variety, as well.