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Leonard Pitts: Power unrestrained serves only itself

Too many police officers consider themselves above the law they are supposed to enforce.

(Richard Drew | AP photo) This Nov. 4, 2019, photo shows then Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea, the incoming New York City Police Commissioner, at a news conference at New York's City Hall.

As police misbehavior goes, it was a small thing.

No one was killed, or shot, or even arrested. But in a sense, that gives it all the more impact. Shorn of the distracting emotionalism of bloodshed or false arrest, last week’s video recording of an incident between a subway rider and two New York City Police officers provides a clear and unmistakable view of the high-handed arrogance that too often masquerades as policing.

It seems 27-year-old Andrew Gilbert approached the unmasked officers, one male, one female, and asked them to put on facial coverings. This would be in compliance with rules set down by both the transit authority and the police department. Gilbert says the male officer played dumb, claiming he could not hear through Gilbert’s mask.

When he got tired of that game — and this is where the bystander video picks up the story — the officer took hold of the unresisting Gilbert and manhandled him off the subway platform, pushing him through an emergency exit held open by his partner. Gilbert can be heard demanding their badge numbers, but at this writing, neither officer has been identified.

Again, it’s a small thing. But it speaks to large concerns, to the conviction that too many officers, protected by our deferential admiration, cosseted by union rules that make it very nearly impossible to get fired, consider themselves not servants of the law, but the law itself and the law entire, above the rules, beyond accountability and answerable to no one.

Consider that Police Commissioner Dermot Shea pronounced the behavior of the two cops “absolutely inexcusable” and called for them to be disciplined, but added that he wouldn’t expect them to be fired, suspended or placed on modified duty. So apparently they’ll get off with a good, stern talking to.

And yes, some will say Gilbert should have expected what he got. Everybody knows you don’t question a cop. But that attitude is part of the problem. If you’re not causing a disturbance, posing a threat or hindering him in the performance of his duties, why, exactly, can’t you question a cop? Especially when said cop is flouting rules everyone else is supposed to obey? Is he not a public servant? Are we not the public?

But then, power unrestrained serves only itself.

The police are esteemed — rightly — for being first responders, for running toward danger. But that is not, and cannot be, a get-out-of-accountability-free card. We’d demand answers from the janitor or short-order cook who behaved as if rules were for other people. Why is it so hard to hold to the same standard men and women in whom we vest such sweeping authority?

Understand: That cop’s behavior is not a one-off. Rather, it’s just the latest example of a very specific kind of arrogance, part of a throughline linking every cop who thinks the law serves him instead of the other way around. It takes in the cops who arrested, interfered with and roughed up journalists during Black Lives Matter protests. It takes in the ones who shoved a 75-year-old man to the ground in Buffalo, causing him to suffer a head injury. It takes in all the cops refusing to comply with mask or vaccine mandates around the country. And it certainly takes in former cop Derek Chauvin smirking at the camera — smirking! — as he slowly ground the life out of George Floyd.

Maybe you think that’s an awful lot to lay on a cop who only kicked a guy out of a subway station. And you’d be right. His misbehavior was, indeed, a small thing.

This time.

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com

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