June 18, 2010 in Opinion

Editorial: Look beyond YouTube on complex police issues

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A Seattle policeman is the latest law enforcement officer in the region to attain YouTube celebrity over a confrontation.

Maybe you’ve seen it. He’s trying to cite a 19-year-old woman for jaywalking, and she’s unhappy about it. Actively unhappy. Her 17-year-old friend joins the fray and gets slugged in the jaw. A crowd gathers, cell phone cameras roll and onlookers taunt the lone officer, who finally gets his suspects subdued.

As Ian Walsh has undoubtedly heard, a boy isn’t supposed to punch a girl. But you also don’t shove and swat at a police officer who’s giving you or your friend a ticket. If we want public order under a system of law, some things take precedence over chivalry.

The problem here is that the amateur footage of the incident is all that thousands of Northwesterners know about what happened in this incident. They know little or nothing of the detail and nuance that authorities will consider as they examine the case.

Because of the work they do, cops routinely find themselves in circumstances fraught with tension and violence. Spokane understands. The death of Otto Zehm more than four years ago is but one in a series of police conduct issues that led the city to create a police ombudsman position.

Sometimes, when order breaks down, it’s the cops who are out of line. Most times it’s not. Almost always, though, both friends and foes are quick to render hasty judgments.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that as this year began, Washington state was mourning the violent deaths of six law enforcement officers slain in three separate incidents. The legislative session that ensued seemed at times dedicated to affirming the state’s universal respect for peace officers, who could do no wrong.

Yet, the Walsh incident has unleashed a rash of criticism that is no doubt influenced by another Seattle incident in which officers were recently taped beating and using ethnic slurs against a Latino robbery suspect who turned out to be the wrong person.

Down the freeway in Portland – where there have been three fatal police shootings this year and a police chief has been fired – public attitudes are so touchy that the owner of a coffee shop recently asked a uniformed Seattle officer not to patronize it.

New Chief Mike Reese was quoted in the Oregonian this week as saying he wants his department to operate on basis of “competency and confidence” rather than fear and distrust. Reese’s goal is laudable, but as long as police work takes place at the boundary between civil order and anarchy, there will be unpleasant consequences to sort out.

It’s essential that an agency licensed to restrict freedom, with force if necessary, be held in check by publicity as well as regulatory oversight. That level of accountability requires more than the opinions shaped by 30 seconds of shaky video.

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