It’s hard to imagine more unnerving images than those of unarmed African-Americans in deadly or near-deadly encounters with police officers in the rash of cases that have gripped the nation over the last 12 months. The videos of 12-year-old Tamir Rice being shot as he sat in a local park in Cleveland and of 50-year-old Walter Scott being gunned down as he ran from Charleston police have left indelible scars on even those of us who are inclined to accept that, in most use-of-force cases involving cops, the police are justified in their actions. But after witnessing the police takedown of eight-month pregnant Charlena Michelle Cooksin Barstow, California, I am convinced that unless something dramatic happens with law enforcement departments across this nation, the worst is yet to come.
Unlike the outcomes for Rice, Scott, Eric Garner in Staten Island, Michael Brown in Ferguson or Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell in Cleveland, Cooks’ case didn’t end in death or serious bodily injury. Yet it demonstrated such a flagrant disregard for human life, women, unborn fetuses and African Americans that it will be forever recorded in the annals of history along with those cases with fatal endings.
Cooks’ encounter was captured by the Barstow officer’s body cam, after Cooks got into an altercation with a Caucasian woman in the parking lot of her daughter’s elementary school. The blonde woman, as she is identified in the media, accuses Cooks of cutting her off and then approaching her car and hitting her window with a foreign object. The woman calls the police; from the officer’s initial encounter with the blonde woman, Cooks is marginalized and characterized as the aggressor and the “one to be dealt with.”
The officer talks with the blonde woman, listens attentively to her rendition of events, validates her statements and goes further by telling her that when he speaks to Cooks, she should expect “her (Cooks) to deny the allegations and place blame on her (the blonde).” The officer makes a visual inspection of the blonde lady’s vehicle and sees no damage. He states that because there was no damage present, “no crime” had been committed. The officer never asks the blonde woman for her name or identifying information. He simply accepts her statements and allegations as true.
The officer then asks Cooks for her name. She initially refuses, but later tells him her middle name, “Michelle.” When the officer insists that she provide her full name, she attempts to call her boyfriend on a cell phone. She can be heard on the videotape saying multiple times, “Do not touch me, I’m pregnant.” Despite her pleads, she is taken down to the ground, her face and stomach pushed into the pavement as the officers struggle to place her in handcuffs behind her back. At some point, she gets off the ground and is forced into a police car, all the while continuing to plead with the police to respect the fact that she is pregnant.
Cooks is taken to the Barstow police station and charged with resisting arrest, charges which were eventually dropped by a judge.
After the video of this incident went viral, Twitter and other social media sites were abuzz with commentary, most of it expressing outrage over how an eight-month pregnant woman who committed no crime ends up face down and handcuffed behind her back. However, some weighed in with what seems an innocuous question: “Why didn’t Cooks just give the officer her name?”
The answer is simple: she had a legal right not to! As easy as it is to blame Cooks, Rice, Harris, Garner and every other victim of police excessive force, when we do so we undermine the very rights guaranteed to each of us under the Constitution and a plethora of federal and state laws, and we continue to mask the systemic problems that plague many police departments. Cooks did nothing wrong. She had a disagreement with a woman in a school parking lot. She tried to explain her version of events to the officer and when she exercised her rights under California law, she was falsely arrested, confined and restrained.
Many states have a so-called “stop and identify” statue that makes it a crime to refuse to provide identification to police. California is not one of these states. Under California law, a citizen has the legal right to refuse to provide their identification to police except in very narrow situations such when driving at a traffic stop or after being arrested. An officer can ask for your identification, but you can say no.
Some police officers contend that any officer investigating a potential crime can require an individual to provide identification. Even assuming this liberal interpretation of California law, in Cooks’ encounter, the officer clearly states to the blonde that he sees no evidence of a crime! The police can’t have it both ways. If a potential crime was being investigated, why didn’t the officer state that to Cooks and the blonde, and ask both for their names? Once the officer boldly declared the opposite, law enforcement can’t conjure up facts and scenarios clearly inconsistent with the officer’s recorded statements.
The Barstow police department’s statement in response to the video is further insulting. First it characterizes Cooks as an “emotionally charged individual” while supporting the actions of its officer. This characterization plays into negative stereotypes of African American women as rude, combative, noncerebral and, most importantly, untrustworthy. It’s more of the same strategy to “blame the victim.” Cooks is upset and justifiably so. She has a minor verbal altercation with a woman in a parking lot, an officer approaches her, refuses to allow her to give her rendition of events, treats her differently than the non-African-American woman and totally disregards her legal rights. Less than 20 seconds after telling her he is giving her two minutes to speak on the phone with her boyfriend, he wrestles her to the ground and falsely arrests her. Cooks is rightfully indignant, as anyone would be!
Barstow’s police department supports its officer’s actions even though a judge dismissed all charges against Cooks, and despite the fact that the department recently entered into a settlement of $15,000 for two brothers, Jesse and Robert Katz, for an accusation of similar wrongdoing. In that matter, the brothers were at a restaurant when a customer accused patrons and employees of stealing his vaporizer device. Officers were called to the restaurant and demanded the brothers show identification. The brothers refused and were arrested. The charges against them were eventually dropped and, as part of the settlement of their civil rights violations lawsuit against the police, Barstow agreed to retrain officers to recognize that the refusal to identify oneself is rarely grounds for arrest.
So the real question isn’t why Cooks didn’t give the officer her name, it’s why he felt the need to arrest her. Too often when we examine cases of police excessive force, it’s difficult to understand why police don’t deescalate the situation or use a lesser degree of force. They are the trained professionals — right?
My cop friends tell me that in addition to institutional biases that can’t be minimized, training is often antiquated and premised on the days of being “tough on crime,” once the only approach to policing. Assuming my officer friends are correct, we can expect more incidents like Cooks’, and that things will get worse before they get better. This doesn’t have to be. Clearly, being “tough on crime” doesn’t mean ignoring basic common sense and principles that build respect for all lives.
Barstow and police departments around the country should take a page out of Cincinnati’s playbook. After settling a major lawsuit with the ACLU over excessive police tactics, that city’s police department adopted a new strategy for policing. Identified as the “Collaborative,” the agreement required Cincinnati police to adopt community problem-solving policing tactics. The focus of policing essentially shifted from arrests to solving the “problems that cause people to commit crimes in the first place.”
According to a June 1, 2015 article in The Atlantic, Cincinnati achieved success in a number of ways using this model, including lowering not only incarceration rates, but also crime rates. The city also improved relations with local residents.
Imagine if the officer who arrived on the scene with Cooks and the blonde woman had been trained to problem-solve. The two women were already separated. The officer had already determined no crime had been committed. Yet rather than encourage both ladies to be more careful and move on, he escalated the matter and endangered the life of Cooks and her unborn child.
Colloquially put, this is “dumb policing.” Yes, he may look like the “tough cop,” but he just guaranteed his city a lawsuit and, hopefully, put his job in jeopardy. The resources, man hours, public humiliation and almost certain civil rights lawsuit from Cooks could have been avoided by focusing on resolving the dispute rather than putting another notch on his “arrest belt.”
This case is a wake-up call for not only Barstow, but for police departments around the country. As we continue the important dialogue on race and disparities in the criminal justice system, let’s not overlook some solutions with proven track records. Clearly, police tactics from the 1970s and 1980s are no longer acceptable in today’s technology age.
Denzel Washington was playing a character in Training Day; body cams, cell phone cameras and more educated citizens would make his form of policing unrealistic even on the big screen. Cooks and everyone who has had or will have an encounter with the police should expect and demand officers work harder and smarter at not only eliminating racial biases, but providing problem-solving oriented and sophisticated policing.