Few things are more painful to me than the abuse of power, or incompetence in the execution of that power. The consequences for those affected by such malfeasance and clumsiness are so great as to demand a sense of outrage from us all.
Over the last year, for example, dozens of men, including the president of the United States himself, have been credibly accused of sexual assault and sexual misconduct. And the fact that they were powerful men made the allegations really sting.
That’s why I find misconduct and chicanery on the part of the law enforcement community so troubling. We should be able to trust the police to do the right thing, or at least they should go through the motions of pretending to do so.
That did not happen in the case of Michael Picard, an East Hartford man who acted lawfully but was abused by the State Police, who to this day refuse to admit any wrongdoing in trumping up phony charges against the then-27-year-old.
Picard is a Second Amendment advocate who also happens to detest random drunk driving checkpoints set up by police. On Sept. 11, 2015, Picard and a friend were standing on the side of Park Road in West Hartford near the I-84 on-ramp entrance. He was armed with a video camera. In his holster was a pistol for which he had a valid permit. He was also holding a sign that said “Cops ahead. Keep calm and remain silent” — warning motorists of a sobriety checkpoint about 700 feet beyond that was set up by Connecticut State Police. As you can imagine, this was a source of great annoyance to the cops who were trying to nab drunk drivers.
Notwithstanding the fact that Picard was doing nothing illegal, a trooper stomped over to him and seized his gun and camera without probable cause, telling him with a straight face that, “It is illegal to take my picture!” This was a brazen lie emphatically told to a citizen whom the trooper was sworn to protect. Either that, or the trooper was ignorant of the law. I’m not actually sure which is more disturbing.
Fortunately for Picard (and for us), the trooper was technologically illiterate and did not realize the camera was still rolling even after he seized it from a law-abiding citizen. So we were treated to the spectacle of troopers, two of whom were supervisors who should be setting an example, conspiring about what to charge Picard with after they were disappointed to learn that he was licensed to carry a pistol in Connecticut.
“Have that Hartford lieutenant call me,” one trooper said in the video. “I want to see if he’s got any grudges.” Another trooper added, “Gotta cover our ass!” The troopers sounded like they were kids who had made a mess in their parents’ room and were trying to figure out how to clean it up before the adults came home. Truth and justice, which the troopers had taken an oath to uphold, were taking a back seat to CYA.
In the video, Picard describes himself as someone who “advocates for freedom whenever and wherever.” Good for him. Unlike many Second Amendment advocates, Picard maintains a healthy skepticism toward the powerful and those who would otherwise trample on our other freedoms, such as those embodied in the First and Fourth Amendments.
Shame on the troopers who were involved in the incident and who attempted to charge Picard “with fabricated criminal infractions,” as the ACLU alleged in a complaint against the State Police.
And shame on the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection which, in violation of a state Supreme Court ruling, initially refused to release the resulting internal investigation report that, it turns out, failed to even to address the subject of the trooper falsely claiming “It is illegal to take my picture!”
Longtime observers of the Connecticut State Police may recall this is not the first its internal affairs division has been in hot water. Harken back to 2006, when a scathing report was issued by state and outside authorities on the IA division.
The 168-page report, completed by then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s office and the New York State Police, painted a picture of an IA unit that was out of control and not doing its job. Authorities in whom we had invested our trust to police the police were either looking the other way or failed to follow-up on obvious leads. And often they were directed to do so by superiors.
At one troop, The Hartford Courant reported, “an ‘open competition’ existed among some troopers over who could make the most drunken-driving arrests on the midnight shift” — with little care given as to whether the arrests were legitimate or not. Not surprisingly, IA failed to properly investigate this matter as well.
Policing the police is a terribly complex subject. For obvious reasons, internal affairs divisions are suspect because they operate with a built-in conflict of interest. And the citizens’ review boards that have been set up to investigate police misconduct in several cities are subject to abuse by board members looking to score cheap political points.
My advice, if you are stopped by the police, is to take your cue from Picard. Keep the camera on your phone rolling just in case.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.
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