I work for a non-profit that provides attorneys for convicted felons on their appeals. Sometimes I get questions about my work, generally about the ethics of helping to defend people that are often really really guilty. I usually say something about the imbalance of power involved in the criminal justice system, and my feeling that everyone is entitled to decent legal representation. Certain attorneys in our office would probably give a better explanation, but also use the words "draconian" and "paramilitary".
In general, I think that there are a lot of people screwed over by the way our country deals with crime. The combination of minimum sentencing guidelines and California's "Three strikes" law means that our office sees many people serving sentences of more than a decade for crimes like drug possession, auto burglary, or in one case, the alleged theft of a carpenter's pencil (no joke!). Prosecutors and judges alike are under pressure to push for high conviction rates, and the longest possible sentences for those same convictions. Every two years or so, Californians vote to punish sex offenders more heavily, tighten their restrictions on residency, or track them from outer space. Some would argue that people simply have a thirst for vengeance and punishment.
In addition, police officers seem to enjoy harassing people and beating them up, even after they've been restrained. People don't seem to mind when bad people get beaten up during an arrest. Abuses from guards, even those against teenagers, are greeted with yawns. Sexual assaults in prison are treated as a joke - "don't drop the soap, buddy!"
So it will be interesting to see the reaction to this arrest by the UCLA police department. (Warning: Disturbing video.)
The student was at the library after 11 PM, without his ID card. Because he failed to leave the library in a timely fashion, police officers stunned him with a Taser at least four times. It's not that he refused to leave; it's that he didn't do it fast enough. Even when the student was handcuffed, officers stunned him, purportedly because he didn't get to his feet quickly enough. Clearly, he was defying their police authority and not simply, you know, stunned from the multiple Taser shots. An officer also threatened to use his Taser on a student who asked for his badge number. I'm sure it was not at all a factor in the police response, but for the record, the student was not Caucasian.
Assistant Chief of Police Jeff Young claims that the police response was appropriate, since beating the student with batons would have been worse. Why were cops patrolling the library in the first place? "Because of the safety of the students."
If the police hadn't been there, who knows what could have happened? An armed gang could invade the library, wearing matching colors and body armor, and use their stun guns on students with impunity. This gang would answer to no authority, call each other by code names indicating their rank in the gang, and carry firearms. Thank God for the UCPD.
Predictably, there is a huge outcry about this at UCLA, and with good reason. It was disgusting, and I hope a lot of people are going to get fired and/or sued. Still, I wonder what happens in all those arrests where there isn't a video camera present. I'm also curious what the reaction would have been like if this had been a "bad" person on the receiving end of the stun gun.
CYA counselors deal with a young charge who refuses to leave his cell in a timely fashion