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Police are operating with total impunity in Ferguson

Scott Olson

Above you'll see a picture of Scott Olson, the Getty photographer who's brought us many of the most striking images of protests and police crackdown that followed the shooting of Michael Brown.

The other two men in the photograph have not yet been identified to the public. When police arrested the Washington Post's Wesley Lowery and the Huffington Post's Ryan Reilly, they weren't wearing badges or nametags, and refused when asked to identify themselves.* Reasonable people can disagree about when, exactly, it's appropriate for cops to fire tear gas into crowds. But there's really no room for disagreement about when it's reasonable for officers of the law to take off their badges and start policing anonymously.

There's only one reason to do this: to evade accountability for your actions.

Olson was released shortly after his arrest, as were Reilly and Lowery before him. Ryan Devereaux from The Intercept and Lukas Hermsmeier from the German tabloid Bild were likewise arrested last night and released without charges after an overnight stay in jail. In other words, they never should have been arrested in the first place. But nothing's being done to punish the mystery officers who did the arresting.

And what's particularly shocking about this form of evasion is how shallow it is. I can't identify the officers in that photograph. But the faces are clearly visible. The brass at the Ferguson Police Department, Saint Louis County Police Department, and Missouri Highway Patrol should be able to easily identify the two officers who are out improperly arresting photographers. By the same token, video taken at the Lowery and Reilly arrests should allow for the same to be done in that case.

Policing without a nametag can help you avoid accountability from the press or from citizens, but it can't possibly help you avoid accountability from the bosses.

For that you have to count on an atmosphere of utter impunity. It's a bet many cops operating in Ferguson are making, and it seems to be a winning bet.

In his statement today, President Obama observed that "there's no excuse for excessive force by police or any action that denies people the right to protest peacefully," seeking to tap into the widespread view that some instances of excessive force and denial of first amendment rights have taken place. But Obama did not even vaguely hint that any officer of the law would or should face even the slightest sanction for this inexcusable behavior.

Statements from Governor Jay Nixon and Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson have suffered from the same problem. It is nice, of course, to hear that one's concerns are in some sense shared by the people in power.

But on another level, it would almost be nicer to hear that nobody in charge thinks there's been any misconduct. After all, a lack of police misconduct would be an excellent reason for a lack of any disciplinary action. What we have is something much scarier. Impunity. The sense that misconduct will occur and even be acknowledged without punishment. Of course there are some limits to impunity. Shoot an unarmed teenager in broad daylight in front of witnesses, and there'll be an investigation. But rough up a reporter in a McDonalds for no reason? Tear-gas an 8 year-old? Parade in front of the cameras with no badges on? No problem.


(Pew Center)

According to a Pew poll released earlier today, most white people have a good amount of confidence in the investigation into Michael Brown's death. They have the good sense, however, to at least admit to some misgivings about the handling of the protests.

What they ought to see is that the two are hardly so separable. The protests would not be handled so poorly if the officers doing the handling felt that they were accountable for their actions. And a policing culture that doesn't believe cops should be accountable for their actions is not a culture that lends itself to a credible investigation.

* Correction: The initial version of this article said that the officers who arrested Olson were not wearing identifying information, when in fact they appear to have proper nameplates on.

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