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Columns : Editorial

Swimming the Witch

In the American system of justice, you’re innocent until proven guilty...unless you carry a badge.

October 01, 2002  |  by - Also by this author

They had a quaint custom in the Puritan settlements of Colonial America. When someone was accused of practicing sorcery, he or she would be bound hand and foot and thrown into a lake, river, or bay. If the accused floated, she was guilty. If he drowned, then innocence was pronounced with the apologies of the court. They jokingly called this ordeal by water "swimming the witch."

Police officers swept up in a high-profile case involving accusations of racism and excessive force probably sympathize with those poor swimming witches. Except their trial is not by water, it's by media.

One of the first things an apprentice journalist is taught is never to assume guilt. When a man is arrested for a crime, he is just that, "arrested," "charged with," "accused of," until a jury of his peers bestows upon him the proud title of "murderer," "arsonist," "robber," etc. There's one exception to this rule: cops involved in racially charged use-of-force incidents, especially incidents in which the action is caught on video tape.

Now, it's easy to say, "Hey, it's on the tape. That's proof." But no one except a prosecuting attorney would ever argue on the record that just because John Q Public is on tape burning his warehouse that he is an "arsonist." To do so in print or in public outside of the advocacy arena of the courtroom is to invite action for libel or slander if it turns out that John Q was just taking his gasoline-soaked rag collection for a walk that night.

But such protections do not apply to cops involved in racially charged incidents. For example, in the recent Inglewood, Calif., incident, Officer Jeremy Morse was "convicted" of assault by public officials, political activists, and the media long before his day in court.

Now it's not our intention here to argue the guilt or innocence of Officer Morse. Our concern is that a law enforcement officer tried by the media in a racially charged case has as much chance of a fair hearing as a Wiccan priestess in Old Salem.

The rhetoric that was spewed by activists and local politicos in the early days of the Morse case essentially amounted to an official proclamation of guilt. Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying Morse should be fired. Note, the words "if proven guilty" were not part of Dorn's statement. And if you were a taxpayer in Inglewood looking down the barrel of a multimillion dollar police abuse suit, wouldn't you love the fact that your mayor is in the papers yelling, "We're guilty"?

Morse has the right to an impartial jury. However, now that the tape has played 400 times a day, accompanied by images of crowds screaming, "No justice, no peace," à la the Rodney King Riot, the court will have to go to Antarctica to find one.

And the injury here is not just to Morse. It's to all cops, regardless of ethnic identity. Because the real danger is that before using force, even appropriate force, officers will hesitate as they think about what they will look like on the evening news answering questions from Johnnie Cochran.

That's exactly what Dave Reichert, Sheriff of King County, Wash., believes happened to one of his deputies earlier this year. Over the last two years, King County deputies have shot and killed two African-American men and those shooting were decried by African-American community leaders as racially motivated. The shootings led to charges of racism being leveled at King County deputies. A series of major demonstrations was planned by local activists. Then Dep. Richard Herzog was murdered.

Reports say that Herzog was called to an altercation involving Ronald Matthews, a man who, according to witnesses, was running naked in traffic. Running naked in traffic is a strong indication of either mental illness or drug overdose. Herzog tried to take Matthews into custody.

Matthews did not comply, so the deputy gave him a taste of OC. The OC had little or no effect, and that meant Herzog should have escalated perhaps even to drawing his sidearm. But Herzog apparently hesitated. A fight ensued, the two men ended up on the ground, and Herzog lost his gun. Witnesses say Matthews then stood over Herzog and shot him repeatedly in the head.
Did Herzog choose not to use appropriate force because of fear of being painted a racist on the TV news? We will never know. But Sheriff Reichert thinks he did.

Tags: Duty Deaths, Mentally Ill Subjects, Excessive Force


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