Jackass of the Week Award - The City of Hot Springs, Arkansas

Bumbling Barney Fife wasn't allowed to put bullets in his gun when he patrolled the streets of Mayberry. It was a given that he was a hazard to public safety. This was a funny repeated theme in the tv series, with the Don Knotts character running around doing crazy slapstick.

But in real life, many police officers exhibit that they do not have the judgement to carry an loaded weapon in public. Now don't get me wrong. This is not a cop-bashing post. But it is a post to question where we draw the line. What should be done when an officer exhibits behavior that indicates he or she does not have the necessary judgement to wear a badge?

Incidents of excessive force occur everyday in the United States. And every once in a while, those incidents are captured on film for the world to see and judge. Just such a thing happened on June 21, the day now known as "Go Skateboarding Day." This day was created by skateboard advocates, and has been formally instituted by the U.S. Congress.

But in Hot Springs, Arkansas the day didn't go so well. A group of skaters was stopped by a local police officer, who put one of the young men to the ground and held him there by his throat. This image was captured on one of the skaters' cell phones, and two other kids quickly turned on their video cameras.

For those who haven't noticed, the video camera has been a ubiquitous tool in a skater's life since the devices were first available on the shelves of electronics stores. It's always good to have a record of yourself pulling an insane trick that you might not ever again duplicate, film your friends eating pavement as they try to outdo you, and maybe, just maybe, you might eventually get noticed and sponsored.

In this case, the students filmed a disgusting case of a local cop using bizarrely excessive force on this group of kids. The point of contention here seems to be that the officer was trying to stop, or even cite, the kids for skateboarding in a place that wasn't zoned for it. But it ended with police officer Joey Williams grabbing no fewer than three kids by their necks, some of them as young as 13.

The kids' videos were, of course, immediately posted to YouTube. It's not the Rodney King beating by any stretch, but take a look and judge for yourself if this should fall into either category of "excessive force" or "police brutality."

The first thing that struck me is the sheer size difference between this cop and the kids. The second, and the thing that has everyone up at arms, is his putting a 13-year old girl in a headlock, particularly when she looks like she weighs about 80 pounds. Officer Joey Williams has to be at least three times her weight.

AP articles say that the choke hold on the girl actually lifted her feet off the ground. That's obviously some really good police work in action. I also noticed that when Officer Joey Williams had the two kids in a headlock, there was another police officer standing next to him, who obviously didn't feel that the situation warranted his stepping in, as he stands to the side, looking like he doesn't want any part of this.

With nearly a million page views as of this writing, the YouTube video is getting a lot of air time. On the noticed and sponsored
Reason http://reason.com/blog/show/121095.html
blog, participants had some insightful comments from citizens across the United States and abroad. Some of my favorites:

"...you do blame the cop, for a wildly disproportionate response to the situation. He probably walked by three dozen violations of nitpicky city ordinances before he decided choking a 13-year-old was a good idea."

"So cops are allowed to choke minors who violate a city ordinance? No one in the video was "resisting arrest" -- that little girl surely wasn't. Just because someone may be violating a fucking ordinance doesn't give cops the right to rought them up. Also, isn't violation of a city ordinance usually punishable by fine, not arrest?"

"And nothing in the video indicates that the girl was under arrest when she decided to run....So he put a teenage girl in a headlock without cause.... I think that's over the line."

"I love the "resisting arrest" line thrown in there. As Americans is it not our right and duty to resist unlawful arrest?"

In response to the widespread attention that the video has gotten Mayor Mike Bush told the Associated Press that "Unfortunately, the video shows it pretty good....Bush called Williams "one of 100 best and finest we've got" in the city's police department."

Here's the only really funny part of this story, and one I haven't seen noted anywhere else. Consider Mayor Bush's statement, then read this statement taken verbatim from the Hot Springs website:

"The 99-officer Police Department provides basic police services in addition to various other special community programs such as Drug Awareness, Neighborhood Watch, Personal Safety, Housewatch, and Home/Business Security Analysis."

On the same website, there is a special section called the Mayor's Youth Council. Not surprisingly, no results were found for the search of "police choking."

Officer Joey Williams has been placed on administrative leave (which, if you ask me, is a euphemism for paid vacation) while higher powers investigate the incident. But what more can be said after watching the video? Why should this officer continue to have power, authority, and lethal weapons on the streets of America?

If the way this officer handled the situation is ultimately deemed appropriate, does that give me the right to make a citizen's arrest when someone mouths off? Because by Officer Jackboot McOverreact's standards, this would be disturbing the peace. Can I then throw that individual in a headlock, or push him to the ground and hold him by his neck in the name of persuing said citizen's arrest?

Of course, I'm a "civilian," which is police-speak for "the law applies to you and not me." I thought it would be interesting to see what other officers were saying about this incident, and when I came across some of their comments, my stomach turned.

It's unfortunate that these comments will likely reinforce many people's views that police are corrupt, uneducated, and abuse their powers ad infinitum. These comments are not meant to reflect the feelings or opinions of all police officers on the topic. But out of the hundreds of statements I read, I found exactly two officer comments that were flatly critical of Joey Williams:

"azcop2...Leaving a handcuffed suspect behind while you chase another one? Trying to take TWO kids into custody simultaneously (and looking like a fool in the process? Forget the punks, this cop is in serious need of officer safety re-trainig AND temper control."

"emore66...I dont know...Officer looked foolish...I think you have to pick your battles kids riding skateboards on sidewalk not sure it is worth it...I guess what town you work for dictates..."

Other officers did not give their whole-hearted support for Joey Williams, but their dissent fell largely into the "procedural" category:

"JP1...Even after watching a video that the kids "edited", my comment is that they deserved everything they got. Had this happened with one of my officers when I was Chief, I'd of had some serious talks with parents. (However, I would not have left a handcuffed kid on the sidewalk while I chased off another one. We would have found out who he was and got him later.)"

"lupd...looks like the punks needed more than what they got...that said there were some tactical errors on the officers part, but nothing that would be considered police brutality."

"cpd6a2...completely baited! Piece of crap kids need a major spanking. It was nothing but a big joke for them. Officer never should have left a handcuffed kid on the ground by himself to chase after another. Get help and then deal with the rest."

"DetSgt31...Write the kids' tickets for skateboarding, pull the parents in for raising such brats. The problem lies with the parents also, hold them directly responsible. Maybe a trip to the woodshed for Mom and Dad will get them thinking."

"orchevycop...Wow, skateboarding must be an arrestable offense there. Officer might be in the right, but he need some more training in verbal encounters."

Unfortunately, the vast majority of police officer comments read more like these. In considering the tone and intent of these comments, I think that cities and counties across the nation should begin to seriously consider regular and repeated psychological profiles of their officers.

I don't mean that in a humorous tone whatsoever. The reality is that if cops are thinking this way about their jobs and their concepts of what falls into that category is so incredibly broad-based and out of line, we really need some monitoring in place before we send these people out into the streets to utilize their so-called judgement, while heavily armed, in split-second scenarios.

Again, you may judge for yourself. (A sidenote: between the Mayor of Hot Springs and these officer comments, my overriding sense at this point is that it's a story fraught with poor grammar.)

"cross_rifles: Got to do what ya got to do!"

"OHDEP76...All they had to do was comply in an orderly manner and the situation would never have escalated. The officers may have been on the aggressive side, but within reasonable force for sure."

"88pdx...One easy word to learn: COMPLY!"

"pcpc601...hey turd, ya know what failure to comply is?!? if ya didn't, now you do..."

By far the worst comments, in my opinion, are the ones that advocate "ass kickings" to compensate for what they perceive as poor parenting:

"jcarnes718...I didn't see anything wrong on the Officers part. These teenagers think they can do whatever they want to whom ever. I think an ass whipping needs to be handed down to these punks."

"Bears:...When the parent fails the Police step in to do what is needed."

"Bodie: Nothin' Wrong Here...Nothing wrong here that I see. Kids gotta grow up and take an ass kickin' sometime if parents ain't doin' it it's up to the police. It's the parents tax dollars at work."

I have to say that I find these statements to be chilling. It's easy to chalk this kind of bravado up to officer banter, but the real concern is that these people really think that their job is not to protect and serve; not to keep the peace; not to enforce laws; they're saying that it is their job to kick someone's ass to catalyze certain behaviors.

In watching this video, it seems that Officer Joey Williams falls into this category. This outrageous abuse of power didn't stem from enforcing laws or getting dangerous thugs off the street. It was driven purely from Joey Williams' own ego. He didn't like that the kids questioned his authority and he was going to show them that he was da man.

Because this out of control police officer has not been fired, or heaven forbid, at least suspended without pay, the City of Hot Springs, Arkansas hereby wins the Jackass of the Week Award.


Remembering the Stonewall Rebellion

As cities across the United States host parades this month, it's an appropriate time to acknowledge the act of defiance that catalyzed what is now known as "Gay Pride." Local news stations like to show some of the more outrageous participants of Gay Pride parades and festivals. After all, the scantily or bizarrely-clad make for good viewing. But there's a rich history to these parades, making them more than the outrageous Dykes on Bikes, the leather contingent and the ubiquitous West Hollywood Cheerleaders.

These colorful images represent a fun summer party to some, while others see the images as proof that homosexuality is indecent and immoral. In fact, these images are controversial even within the gay community, as more conservative folk dislike and even resent the more salacious images projected to the world.

What Gay Pride represents can often be lost in the roar of motorcycles and the thumping of club music pounding from floats. In fact, the most telling representations might just be in the somewhat nondescript participants in every Pride event throughout America. Today you will find various churches, public officials and a variety of unlikely supporters marching in the nation's Pride Parades.

During San Diego's Pride Parade, the whistles and cheers come to a still quiet when one group marches down University Avenue. And every year, it can only mean one thing--PFLAG is coming down the street. Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays is often comprised of senior citizens in t-shirts and knee-length shorts, looking like they're getting ready for a day of gardening or sightseeing.

Instead, they hold up signs that express love for a gay child. Messages on colored posterboard say things like "My gay son Rob means the world to me!" This tribute always quiets the party atmosphere as spectators choke back tears and clap enthusiastically.

The respectful silence is a quiet acknowledgement of the many participants who have been shunned by their own families after coming out. And it is telling that for the thousands of parade participants and spectators, only a very small fraction of these parents are present.

This type of public support for the gay community would have been unthinkable were it not for the event alternately called the Stonewall Rebellion, or Stonewall Riots. Like every quest for civil rights in the United States, the build-up to Stonewall stemmed from the often shocking and bizarre mistreatment of a group of people.

As gay establishments quietly operated in cities across the nation, police conducted regular raids. Simply being on site was justifiable cause for police to fingerprint, photograph, and often publish this information in local newspapers. In New York City at the time, a bar could have its liquor license revoked for "knowingly serving three or more homosexuals at a time."

During the early hours of June 28, 1969 police raided the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. While patrons were used to such raids and typically allowed police to hustle them into paddywagons, this time they resisted arrest. Police were outnumbered as the crowd hurled stones and bottles, and officers eventually locked themselves into the Stonewall Inn itself.

As police called for the riot squad--which had previously been trained to squelch Vietnam protests--Stonewall Inn patrons used a parking meter as a battering ram in an attempt to re-enter the bar, and some even tried to set the club on fire. Word quickly spread through the neighborhood and Village locals came to join the rebellion. (Yes, I know...this spot is prime for an "angry Villagers" joke, but I'll withhold out of respect.)

Several hours later, the riot police had beaten, arrested, and dispersed the crowd. But many Christopher Street locals returned for the next several evenings in open defiance to the city and police, with similar results. In all, the Stonewall Rebellion would last for five nights.

While gay activism was not borne out of the Stonewall Rebellion, it certainly catalyzed the movement. A dam had burst and gays and lesbians refused to live by a different set of societal rules any longer. Some historical accounts say that flyers were circulated later in the summer to organize activists. It read "Do you think homosexuals are revolting? You bet your sweet ass we are!"

The following year, the Gay Liberation Front organized a march to be held on June 28 to commemorate the Stonewall Rebellion. That same weekend, organizers in San Francisco held a "Gay-In," while activists in Los Angeles marched in support of Stonewall as well.

To commemorate the 30th anniverary of the rebellion, the Stonewall Inn was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Around the 35th anniversary of Stonewall, some officers on the scene that first night broke their silence and spoke about the events. One policeman called Stonewall the "Gay Alamo," and told the NY Blade that "he likes people who will fight back for themselves, and that night was the first time he saw gay people fight back."

The Pride Parades are about much more than feather boas and flamboyance. Nearly forty years later, the fact that our country heatedly debates topics such as gay marriage is both exasperating yet shows how far tolerance has come since the nights of the Stonewall Rebellion.

If your only exposure to Gay Pride is a brief video clip on your local news, I hope the quickie history lesson gives you a better context of the festivities. And to my friends who are celebrating this month, Happy Gay Day.


Recommended Reading

With so much schlock on bookstore shelves, it is often difficult to find a book that has a readable pace, yet won’t insult your intelligence. Books can be like food, ranging from the empty-calorie offerings to the dense high-fiber versions that are good for you yet not always palatable. Somewhere in between lie the well-balanced tomes that offer the mind something both tasty and satisfying.

One such book that I’ve recently come across is The Professor and the Madman. In truth, I don’t know that I would have picked this one up on my own. I received it as a present, which makes me wonder if the gift-giver might not know me, in this sense, a little better than I know myself.

Subtitled “A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary,” it might have languished on the bookstore shelves as one of the “high-fiber” options that I feel like I should read, but just never get around to doing so. In this case, the gift-giver’s enthusiasm convinced me to dive right in.

And I am so glad I did. Author Simon Winchester takes a topic that could easily be dry and academic, but instead paints a fantastic historical perspective in which the events take place. His descriptions of 19th century England are vivid and insightful, painting an incredible backdrop to a truly bizarre tale.

His look into the creation of the renowned Oxford English Dictionary points out that creating this first English language dictionary was one of the most ambitious literary projects ever undertaken. In a quest to document and track changes to the English language, the first OED was slated to take a decade to complete. Seventy-one years later, the project would finally be published for the first time, its founding father dead for three decades.

The Oxford English Dictionary has continued to evolve, adding words to its pages as we add them to our vocabularies. This enormous undertaking today stands at twenty volumes, 145 pounds, and a staggering price tag to match.

But Simon Winchester’s book isn’t merely about words. It’s about the strange collaboration between Professor James Murray, head of the OED’s oversight committee, and Dr. W.C. Minor--an American, a Civil War Veteran, an expatriate living in England.

When Professor Murray set off to finally meet the good doctor with whom he had been corresponding for the previous twenty years, he found yet another moniker to add to the list, which becomes the basis of this remarkable book.

In the foreward of this book, the Professor sets off on a journey to visit Dr. Minor, and is met at the railway station by a coachman who ushers the guest into a carriage. They pass through rural English countryside, and arrive at an imposing mansion. Professor Murray is shown into a study where he meets a regal man he naturally assumes is Dr. Minor.

“There was a brief pause, a momentary air of mutual embarrassment. A clock ticked loudly. There were muffled footsteps in the hall. A distant clank of keys. And then the man behind the desk cleared his throat, and he spoke:

‘I regret, kind sir,that I am not. It is not at all as you suppose. I am in fact the Governor of the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Dr. Minor is most certainly here. But he is an inmate. He has been a patient here for more than twenty years. He is our longest-staying resident.’”

The author finishes this section of the foreward by telling readers that “Although the official government files relating to this case are secret, and have been locked away for more than a century, I have recently been allowed to see them. What follows is the strange, tragic, yet spiritually uplifting story they reveal.”

Simon Winchester’s lively narrative makes this a page-turning book that winds up being a fairly quick read. Thankfully, he’s produced another novel on the same topic. While I have not yet read this follow-up to The Professor and the Madman, I am excited about the prospect of reading this next book as well.

The Meaning of Everything takes a closer look at what actually went into the creation of such an ambitious publication. We learn about the difficulty in tracking this voluminous creation, in the hands of hundreds of volunteers spread across thousands of miles.

In creating the OED, some sacks of documents were lost in transit after being nibbled by mice. Others were simply misplaced. Once the tens of thousands of documents arrived to their destination at the tin shed deemed the “Scriptorium,” they were hand-sorted into pigeonhole slots. J.R.R. Tolkien was just one such volunteer on the project.

While summertime reading often drifts off into the mindless, Simon Winchester is an author who writes with a vivid, well-paced style. His works offer readers the opportunity to learn about a deeply wonky topic without ever adopting the approach of a textbook. In other words, perfect reading for a quiet evening on the porch with a glass of something cold