One night two summers ago, I was walking with my friends Dave and Nick when we encountered a group of about five or six men and one woman. The woman approached us and we chatted amicably for a bit, when one of the men became confrontational and cornered Nick, demanding his wallet. Nick replied that he didn’t have his wallet on him (which was true) to which the man scoffed and asked about the visibly outlined object in his front pocket. The man then reached towards Nick’s pocket, but Nick stepped back and replied it was just a (crappy) cellphone and reached into his pocket to show the man. The man then grabbed his arm unexpectedly and violently. Nick recoiled and the man went to grab him again, this time more aggressively. He then yelled out something to the effect of, “Whoa, what are you doing? Relax!” and put his arms up in the air in a surrendering manner. By this time the man, who was bigger than Nick, had fully placed him in an arm lock. Nick yelled something like, “Ok! Ok! Ok! You got me! Relax!”
By this time the rest of the group, with the exception of the woman who was still next to us watching this all unfold, went to join the man in accosting my friend. Three of them tackled him to the ground, and a fourth came and kneed him in the head, twice, and hard. David and I were obviously outnumbered and even if the numbers were even, we probably wouldn’t have fared very well as the men in the group were large and experienced with (and eager for) physical confrontation. As all this was transpiring, I yelled something along the lines of, “What the fuck are you doing? This is not fucking necessary! Leave him alone!” (the swearing isn’t there for embellishment; I distinctly remember dropping two f-bombs) which expectedly went ignored. Several bystanders had also witnessed the commotion. A few of them also pleaded with the assailants to stop. I took out my phone and tried to take photos of the incident and the perpetrators, but the woman who had been talking with us decided to put her hand in from of my camera to prevent me from doing so. In response to this another baffled spectator yelled at her demanding that she let me take photos.
Eventually, when the bullies had had their fun and Nick was sufficiently humiliated and hurt, they let him up and quickly left. For reasons I will get into shortly, David and I parted ways with Nick, who was visibly distressed by the incident. We were left standing there dismayed, unsure what to do. Unfortunately, since we were shaken and not thinking clearly, we failed to get any contact information from the other witnesses, most of whom left quickly once the commotion had ended. I hastily and angrily decided that we needed to go to the police station as quickly as possible, which was a short walk away, and we did so immediately.
When we got there, much to our surprise, the officer working at the desk was incredulous about our story. He immediately told us that it seemed unlikely, and suggested that perhaps Nick had instigated the whole thing. He asked us if we or he had been drinking; I explained (and here I am sincerely not trying to mitigate the story) that David and I had each had exactly one drink, my friend who was beaten up had had even less. To this he suggested that we had probably drank more and again suggested that we were instigators, or at least not without blame. I became upset (probably noticeably so) at the officer’s dismissive attitude and insisted to talk to somebody to which we could officially file a report. The officer told us if Nick wanted to formally make a claim, he would have to do so himself. Implausibly, he explained that it did not matter that we had witnessed a possible crime, since we were not the victim. And he told us to leave. I brashly demanded the officer’s name and badge number and how to make a formal complaint about his behaviour and treatment of us, to which he told us to look it up on the police department’s website. He then threatened that if we did not leave immediately, he would charge us with trespassing.
A few days later Nick ended up asking to press charges, and the assailants were actually found and questioned. Through Nick, I found out that they claimed that he had been drunk (which was patently untrue), claiming that they saw us with open bottles of alcohol (we had in fact been carrying two small bottles of unopened alcohol, and one small empty bottle), and that it was actually him who instigated the confrontation (which was also patently untrue). I was eventually called to the police station to testify about the incident. When I got there, a man and a woman introduced themselves to me with curt professionality, and led me into a small interrogation room like you might expect to see on a cop-drama (though I don’t remember if it had a two-way mirror). They asked me to recall the entire incident.
They eventually asked me about the bottles of alcohol we had been carrying, as the assailants had claimed that they had seen us with three empty 750ml bottles of hard alcohol (just in case it’s not clear, the implication was that between three of us we had each drank a 26-ounce bottle of liquor – quite a feat!). We were going to a party later and we were in fact carrying bottles of alcohol. Between Dave and Nick, they had one unopened 200ml bottle of rum, one unopened 375ml bottle of whisky, and one empty 375ml bottle of whisky which they had poured and mixed with Coca-Cola into two 591ml pop bottles, which at the onset of the incident were at least still 3/4 full . I myself had a beer earlier. I felt these exact details were very important since our claims were being called into doubt on the basis that we were drunk and confrontational. I belaboured the point about precisely how much alcohol we had consumed and precisely how much we had been carrying, and flatly called the assailant liars. I repeated this several times: they were simply lying. My interviewers did not seem to think that this information was as crucial as I did. They became annoyed at my insistence and told me to “move on.”
When I got to the details about the attack on Nick, the interviewers told me that the original assailant said that he had only gently grabbed Nick because he was fearful that when he went into his pocket he was going to pull out a weapon, and that in fact my friend had not recoiled but instead fought back. I found this claim outrageous. I insisted that Nick had offered no resistance whatsoever, but even if he had, it would have been entirely reasonable, since the large man had been the one that instigated the entire thing by aggressively confronting my friend, demanding his wallet, insisting him to tell him what he had in his pocket, and then ultimately, violently grabbing him without provocation. I couldn’t understand why they thought this point was irrelevant. I asked them that even if he did fight back (which he absolutely did not), how the assailants accounted for four of them tackling my friend and kneeing him in the head, when the original assailant had clearly subdued my friend on his own. They said that the assailants said that Nick was in fact fighting with the original assailant and they were merely coming to the rescue of their friend.
As the interrogation continued, they asked more and more questions about the minute details of the incident. Eventually they told that there was one detail between mine and Nick’s testimony that was not entirely consistent, particularly whether the assailant reached for Nick’s pocket and then asked him what he had in there (which my friend remembered) or whether the assailant asked first and then reached (which I remembered). I replied that everything had happened very quickly and unexpectedly, and that it was more likely that it had happened as Nick said. I further explained that the whole event had been fairly shocking and that most people are not able to calmly assess such situations. Even in non-stressful situations, it’s very difficult for witnesses to give precisely detailed accounts of events. Surely, being cops, they must understand this, I said. I couldn’t really see how relevant that detail could be anyway.
But then they explained why it was relevant. They explained that everyone of the assailants had corroborated their version of the story, whereas this was an inconsistency in ours. They explained that their story was more believable because of the corroboration (and thus implied that me and my friend were lying). I suggested that it in fact made their story far less believable, but these cops weren’t impressed by my sophomoric knowledge of psychology. I again insisted that the assailants were simply lying about many of the details, to no effect. Finally, they told me that since it was our (apparently unbelievable) testimony against their (apparently perfectly corroborated) testimony, there was no basis to press charges. And that was that.
If this account sounds unbelievable, it if seems like there is no way that people who go to the police to make a claim about an unprovoked assault would be dismissed so flippantly, if it seems like there must be something missing from this story to account for the police’s treatment of us, that’s because there is. The crucial point I have left out is that the assailants were police officers.
We had all been at the Blue Jays game. Like many enterprising young people (and full grown adults, for that matter), my friends brought their own alcohol to the game, rather than be subjected to the extortionary beer prices of the SkyDome (sorry, Rogers Centre). I really wanted a beer and chumped-up ten bucks for one. Dave and Nick made the egregious error of not promptly disposing of the empty bottle (a 375ml bottle for the record!) of whisky that they had poured into their $4.50 Coca-Colas. At the mid-point of the 2nd inning the 1992 World Series Blue Jays took the field (which was super awesome), and when we stood up to show our respect, one of the security guards was able to spot the empty bottle (obviously he had been on the look out for just such a thing). He came over and told Dave and Nick they had to leave (seeing my beer he assumed I was innocent). They got up apologetically without a fuss. I wasn’t going to watch the game by myself, so I got up too.
None of us said anything rude to the security guards. We didn’t protest being asked to leave. We had been there for an inning and a half. We disturbed absolutely none of the other fans (none knew or cared that Dave and Nick were drinking their own alcohol). We hadn’t even cheered loudly. Dave and Nick handed over the other full, unopened bottles (a half-mickey and a mickey for the record!) without protestation.
The security guards (two sheepish 20 -year-old kids) tried to put on their best tough-guy-routine, but we just joked with them about the rookie mistake of not properly hiding the empty bottle, thinking they didn’t really care about the contraband, but had a job to do. We figured they would escort us to the exit and tell us to have a nice night, and we would walk to the closest bar to laugh about the whole situation.
It’s not clear why the police got involved. I’m not sure if one of the security guards summoned them, or if they were coincidentally walking by when we were being led out. But, for one reason or another we found ourselves handing over our IDs. The security guard handed the two (unopened!) bottles two one cop who opened them both in front of us and poured them out into a garbage. The woman officer that we initially spoke to was casual and friendly, and gave us the impression that everything was merely routine and that we would be on our way promptly. I was going to ask why exactly we were being asked to show our IDs, since as I understood it we hadn’t done anything illegal (I personally hadn’t even violated the rules of the Rogers Centre), but the situation did not seem serious, so for the sake of keeping it that way, I complied. Dave, Nick, and I again laughed and joked about the situation; the woman cop also seemed to find it amusing. Then, when everything was perfectly under control, a big-shot cop walked over and started aggressively questioning us. The woman cop already had my and Dave’s IDs, and sensing the approaching cop’s aggressiveness, I ignored him and continued interacting with the female police officer. He made his way promptly over to Nick and demanded his ID. Nick said he didn’t have one. He asked to see his wallet. Nick said he didn’t have one. And then everything described in the story above transpired.
When they eventually got Nick to the police station, since they didn’t have any legitimate grounds to arrest him, they put him in the drunk tank and charged him with public intoxication. When Dave and I arrived at the station the desk officer told us he was “wasted.” He told us Nick was lucky he wasn’t charged with resisting arrest and assaulting an officer. I told the officer he wasn’t lucky, he simply hadn’t resisted arrest or assaulted an officer. I further pointed out that Nick was never told he was being arrested for anything, so it would have been impossible to have resisted arrest. The cop at the desk insisted that Nick had attempted to assault an officer, and I asked him how he could possibly know that since he wasn’t there, yet we were. He told me one of the officers had told him. I called the officer a liar. Apparently, calling a cop a liar to another cop is a sure way to get your indignant asses kicked out a police station, and this is when we were threatened to be charged with trespassing.
At the police station Nick repeatedly asked for a breathalyser test, since he was told he was being charged with public intoxication. He was told that they “don’t do that.” After talking to some lawyer friends, I found out that they do do that, all of the time. What better way of proving someone’s drunkenness than with a physical record? But, revealingly, in Nick’s case, they refused to give him one.
After Nick filed his complaint against the assailing officers, I was called in to give testimony. What I was expecting and what occurred were essentially the opposite. I expected that an accusation of assault against a police officer would be treated in the same manner as an accusation of assault against any other member of society (however, I’ve never been called as a witness in any other accusation of assault, so maybe what happened to me is typical). I thought that I would present my evidence to an impartial party, who would be genuinely concerned at getting to the truth of the matter, and that they would weigh all available evidence, and then determine if there were grounds to press charges. This is not what happened.
The entire interview was more of an interrogation. They certainly did not go out of their way to make me feel comfortable, which one might expect for a witness providing an account of an assault. Indeed, they went out of their way to be a bit intimidating. At every opportunity they tried to dismiss or counter my claims in favour of the assailing cops’ version. And these weren’t merely follow-up questions for further clarification, but rather statements that the cops’ version was the correct one, and thus Nick and I were lying.
When I got to the part about how much alcohol had been drunk, the real motives of the interviewers were most transparent. Since the only excuse they could come up with for justifying why Nick had been assaulted was that he was drunk, it seemed crucial to iron out the details of his alleged drunkenness. I pointed out that the security guards who had asked us to leave had made no claims about any of us being intoxicated, and that we were able to carry on a perfectly normal and respectful conversation with the original female officer that had spoken to us. She hadn’t suspected us of being drunk. I pointed out that the drunk charge was concocted completely ad-hoc and after-the-fact. The bully officer did not approach Nick aggressively because there was any sign Nick was intoxicated. No one even mentioned the possibility that Nick was intoxicated until the cops found themselves at the station with him in handcuffs for no apparent reason. By then it’s not like they could have just said, “Sorry about beating you up and all, you’re free to go now.” Most importantly, I told the cops interviewing me that the amount of alcohol that the arresting cops had put in their report was simply not correct. I reiterated this several times. This was a crucial point for me because it was the clearest evidence that the cops were lying. But it turns out that even cops investigating other cops don’t like being told that cops are liars.
After this, the interview got more miserable. While initially the interviewers had been only subtly intimidating, they were now demonstrably annoyed. At several instances the male interviewer resorted to victim-blaming and said that Nick would have never gotten beaten up had he not snuck alcohol into the game. I pointed out that that was completely irrelevant to the treatment he received. He could have hit somebody in the head with a beer, that still wouldn’t justify cops beating him up without cause. In another preposterous attempt to find moral justification for Nick’s assault, the interviewers suggested that we had committed theft because sneaking booze into a baseball game was analogous to sneaking into the game itself. I scoffed at this accusation, pointing out that according to the legal definition of theft no one had not stolen anything, and then had to take two minutes to explain why entering a Blue Jays game without paying for a ticket was not the same as merely not buying a beer. I suggested that what Nick and Dave had done was more analogous to sneaking in a cooler with sandwiches and cans of soda, as this would have been violating the same terms and conditions. Would this have justified being assaulted by an officer?
One thing that the interviewers continually reiterated was that the cops were within their legal boundaries to do what they had done. I asked what could have been the possible justification for a police officer physically grabbing someone without warning or provocation. The female officer said that the assaulting cop could have been concerned that Nick had a weapon. I scoffed again. If the officer had genuinely been concerned that Nick, or any of us, had had a weapon, then he wouldn’t have proceeded the way he had. I also asked what weapon he could have had that fit in a front pocket and looked exactly like a cell phone. She asked me if I knew about CELLPHONE GUNS. I’m not kidding. (Apparently they are real things). Hopefully I laughed at this, but I can’t remember. I was probably too astonished that she was seriously claiming that Nick got beaten up because a cop thought he just happened to be casually walking around with a CELLPHONE GUN. (Just in case you didn’t catch that: CELLPHONE GUN).
By this point the interview had become silly and pointless. I acknowledged that legalities and formalities would prevent any meaningful addressing of police wrong-doing, mostly because we simply did not have the resources to hire a lawyer. But I pointed out, that just because they were able to legally evade our complaints, does not mean that the officer had not acted unacceptably and unjustifiably.
I asked, why, if the duty of a police officer is to bring dangerous situations under control, so as to reduce the risk to the public and the possibility of violence of physical harm, that this one officer decided to take what was a completely benign, cooperative, and respectful situation and make it more dangerous, increase the risk to the public, and commit an act of physical violence. I didn’t get an answer to this question.
Here I am giving a self-congratulatory account of my argumentative fortitude in stressful circumstances. This, of course, is all a bit of self-flattery. While I probably succeeded in conveying confidence, in reality, the entire time I felt intimidated. After all, I was in the heart of a police station, telling to police officers that their colleagues were liars and bullies. And that’s precisely the issue. The cops who interviewed me weren’t at arms length from the officers they were investigating. They were colleagues. The knew them personally.
The way I started this story by rhetorically leaving out the crucial fact that Nick’s assailants were cops might seem disingenuous or misleading. But the entire point of framing the incident like this was to illustrate the failings of the mechanisms for investigating police wrong-doing. If Nick’s assailants had been some strangers walking down the street, and the cops treated our complaints with such disdain, we would find it outrageous. Imagine if cops assigned to investigate an assault were friends of the accused? It would simply not be tolerated. The reason I recounted the story as I did is because it is hard to believe. So why do we accept a double-standard when it comes to accusations against police officers?
The lack of impartiality in investigations of police wrong-doing has long been criticised. Besides these systemic issues, cops have innumerable means of evading persecution before it even gets to a formal investigation. They can make up a crime – especially one that cannot be objectively verified (even when the accused asks for such verification) and can merely be applied at the police’s subjective whims. It was simply a matter of one cop saying Nick was drunk and disorderly, and others corroborating that, and they were off the hook. They can physically grab you without warning or provocation, and then when the startled victim reacts as most people would by trying to avoid being assaulted, they’ll charge you with “resisting arrest” (even though you weren’t under arrest until after they grabbed you). And the cops did indeed threaten to charge Nick with resisting arrest, but apparently in the end they weren’t willing to lie about this as well.
Some apologists will argue that the cops need to be afforded with special powers so that they don’t have to worry about self-righteous know-it-alls like myself, which might interfere with their ability to catch bad-guys. They are keeping us safe from Blue Jays fans enjoying a drink at a baseball game, after all. But they do have special powers. They can arrest people. They can ask you for your ID (often for suspect reasons). They have the final say as to whether or not you were publicly intoxicated, even if they are unwilling to objectively verify these claims with a breathalyser. Bullying and assault shouldn’t be part of their special powers. And however moralistic you feel about Dave and Nick’s rather insignificant transgression at the Rogers Centre (one that I heartily endorsed), it simply does not justify the actions of the officers in this case.
More often than not, people who have been subject to police bullying, intimidation, and assault, simply drop the matter. It is stressful and overwhelming to take on the police. While we took it further than probably most people would, I regretfully gave up the fight too easily. I felt so defeated after my interview with the cops that I told Dave, who was also supposed to go in to be interview, that it would be merely a waste of time to go through with it. I told him that it was a shitty, uncomfortable experience, and not to bother. I deeply regret this now, but the cops had succeeded in convincing me that there was nothing we could do. What this suggests is that incidents of police wrong-doing are severely underreported, and the only infractions that the public ever hears about are the most extreme ones.
I’m not “anti-police.” By-and-large, since I am by-and-large a law-abiding citizen, the majority of my very limited interactions with police have been positive (before this, such encounters were limited to getting busted drinking in a park in high-school and an officer telling us to turn our music down at our house while I was in undergrad). Though, I also recognize that I am fortunate enough to live in a community and have the kinds of attributes that don’t draw unwarranted attention from police. In any case, as a matter of principle, I respect and appreciate the job that police do. At its best, it is a noble and selfless profession. But this experience, and all I was prompted to learn in its aftermath, has seriously jeopardized my trust in police. Because sometimes cops lie. And in this case they did. These cops were liars.