The week of December 7, 2014

The long arm of the law

By Andrew Couts

My first real encounter with a police officer occurred on a dark night in my small hometown of Marietta, Ohio. A short and scrawny 12-year-old, I’d left my wallet in the glove compartment of my sister’s car. Just as I dashed across the deserted alleyway behind her apartment building, headed to her parking spot, a car’s headlights caught me in their glare.

I could not see the Marietta Police Department logo, and the cruiser had no lights on top. But I knew it was a cop, even then. Just the way it turned—that slow, deliberate turn that only trained police officers know how to make. It sped up and came to an abrupt stop some 15 feet away.

“Halt!” the officer yelled out to me. (They don’t just say that in bad movies.) I threw my hands into the air, the car keys jingling, instantly freaked out and confused.

“Just what exactly do you think you’re doing?” the officer asked, his hands on his hips. My response has long since escaped me, but I remember that he demanded I show him my library card to prove I was actually Andrew Couts.

The officer explained that he stopped me because “there’s been a lot of car thefts down here recently.” I showed him the keys, and nervously explained what I was doing. A few minutes later, my sister’s landlord came out to see what was happening and told me to go back inside. I ran up the stairs as fast as I could and slammed the door behind me.

Of course, I got off easy. Tamir Rice, another 12-year-old from Ohio, had no one come to his rescue. Instead, he was recently gunned down by a Cleveland police officer because he was playing with his Airsoft pistol in a park. Also unlike Rice, I am white. Were I black, as he was, statistics show that my youthful experience with law enforcement would likely have been more than just a jarring memory.

The goal is justice. And as this year has made exhaustingly clear, we have more work to do.

The power police have over our lives, especially over the lives of people born with brown skin, has become one of the defining issues of 2014 America. As the recent grand jury decisions to not indict the officers who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York, show, the issue is not simply cops making hard, sometimes wrong, split-second decisions in potentially dangerous situations, but a system that appears to value one group of people more than all others simply because they have a different job than you or me.

It is this appearance of an institutional imbalance of power that brought countless thousands into the streets across the United States to protest what they see as a gross injustice. And it is why we at the Kernel have dedicated this week’s issue to shining whatever light we can onto the dividing line between those who say “halt” and those who put their hands up and plead “don’t shoot!”

In this issue, Aaron Sankin explores the rise of companies that make money by spying on the world’s citizens. Rob Price breaks down the power police have to demand access to our data. Kevin Collier checks in on the strangely durable world of mugshot websites. And Patrick Howell O’Neill digs into the rising movement to strap cameras onto every police officer in America—and the surprising allies in that effort.

As long as people break the law, there will be police there to put them in jail. As long as people hurt others, there will be police there to protect the victims. That is just reality, and that will never—should never—change. The goal, then, is not to be anti-police, for that is neither practical nor fair to the brave men and women who, without question, put their lives on the line to keep our communities safe.

The goal is for no 12-year-old to be afraid when a police cruiser rolls up. The goal is justice. And as this year has made exhaustingly clear, we have more work to do.

Photo by Rick Majewski