Mimesis Law
28 June 2017

Plainclothes Cops or Robbers: A Bullet From Either Will Kill

June 29, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — If you have not yet seen this video, watch it.  Do it now.

Video of the 2013 incident was released, not by the Chicago Police, but by a judge who was so disturbed by what he saw that he immediately sent it to the press.  The video shows Chicago Officer Marco Proano firing repeatedly at a slowly reversing car.

The official defense from the Chicago Police Union was that Proano opened fire out of concern for a passenger who was being dragged by the vehicle as he tried to get out (must have been in the director’s cut).  Proano was apparently so overcome with concern that he was willing to risk that passenger’s life by indiscriminately firing into the vehicle.

The occupants of the car were six unarmed black kids.  Somehow, none were killed, although two were wounded.  Since the June 17, 2015 release of the video, news outlets have covered Proano’s insane actions, and how insane it is that he is still pulling down a paycheck as a cop.  In all of the discussion, though, one very important point has been completely overlooked.  When Proano approached that vehicle, he did not look like a cop.

Accompanying the many instances of police shootings, the civilian’s reaction is often cited as the ‘but for’ cause of their death.  The person saw the cop and reached for his waistband, attempted to lunge at the cop, or did not fall immediately to the ground with arms akimbo.  This type of justification never fails because no one in their right mind would try to pull a gun on a cop or attack one.  This narrative, though, assumes one crucial fact – that the person failing to passively succumb to police authority knows that the cop is, in fact, a cop.

So what about Officer Proano?  Put yourself in the circumstances of the driver of the car.  All we can definitely surmise from the video and known facts is that the driver was in a car with five other kids, they were unarmed, and their vehicle was completely stopped alongside a police cruiser.  Suddenly, out the passenger window, a guy with a plain skull cap and a blue sweater is doing his best Bruce Willis impersonation while advancing on his vehicle.  Under those circumstances, with some clown side-gripping a handgun like a gansta and pointing the business end at him, what was the driver to do? What would any normal person do faced with that scenario?

In 2013, two plainclothes Philadelphia cops nearly killed a restaurant delivery man who was committing the crime of walking back to his vehicle after delivering food (aka: his job).  Phillippe Holland was, at all times during the incident, unarmed.  By all accounts, the cops who weren’t dressed at all like cops, ran towards Holland as he was getting into his car.

He quickly started his car and tried to drive away from what he reasonably thought were two would-be robbers.  The cops said they yelled that they were police, and you are free to believe them if you choose. Holland ended up in the hospital with gunshot wounds to the neck, head, and leg. There is no conceivable reason for him to “flee” the police, had he known they were cops.

The armchair cop defenders out there always seem to latch onto the one thing that a person allegedly did as the ultimate reason for his demise.  Eric Garner should not have resisted arrest.  Walter Scott should not have run.  The kids in that car should not have slowly reversed to try to get away.  Mr. Holland should have remained perfectly still hoping that the guys with guns weren’t going to rob him.

Unlike the casual-look uniform that Proano was sporting, the Philadelphia cops were in full-on plainclothes, a policing term that gets thrown around so much it has almost become invisible.  Plainclothes cops are cops in the sense that I am an attorney when I am sitting at a coffee shop writing a brief.  I know I’m a lawyer, but no one else does, nor should they.

This really brings us to a basic question, why do cops even wear uniforms?  If it was just to make them look fancy, then there would be unlimited variations and a lot more flair.  But police uniforms are quite standard, not only across America but throughout the world.  Why is this?  It is for the same reason that cabs look like cabs.  We want cops to be readily identifiable as cops.

Having cops wear typical uniforms ensures that if someone sees them, they would know that the person inside that uniform is a cop, and they can ask them for directions or aid and assistance.  The uniform also serves a more macro purpose.  It is a tool of visibility.  If someone is thinking of committing a crime, they are less likely to do so if they see a cop hanging around.  This only works, though, if the cop looks like a cop.

We have seen a proliferation of plainclothes officers in our cities, mainly due to the rampantly “successful” war on drugs.  What we have not seen is a recognition that the plainclothes officer has a completely different relationship with the community than a uniformed officer.  The uniformed officer is there to let people know that a cop is around.  The plainclothes officer is there to lurk in the shadows.

This brings us back to Chicago and Philadelphia.  These cops were perfectly willing to end the lives of multiple people because one or more of them did not react the way they were supposed to react to a cop.  The glaring problem with this logic is that if the person pointing the gun at you just looks like a regular person, then you see that person as the opposite of a cop.

Would things have gone differently in both of these instances if the cops with the itchy trigger fingers were in full uniform?  No one really knows the answer to that question.  But the officer in street clothes is likely to elicit a very different reaction than the cop in uniform.  Especially when he is pointing a gun at your face.  And when an imperfect reaction can mean a death sentence, being in the crosshairs of a guy in an Eagles jersey might elicit a very reasonable but fatal response.

The transition of our police officers from uniform wearing beacons to sweatshirt wearing predators speaks volumes of what modern policing has become.  When the community is something that must be infiltrated, then everyone becomes the enemy, and a potential threat.  When the plainclothes officer forgets that he is just a guy in plain clothes with a gun, that’s when people react “inappropriately.”   And as we saw in Chicago and Philadelphia, when people react in a way that the officer doesn’t want him to, cops shoot, no matter what the cop is wearing.

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