Tuesday, June 22, 2010

What should worry us all about Seattle cop punching incident

By DeWayne Wickham

In a video flashed around the world, Seattle policeman Ian Walsh is seen punching Angel Rosenthal in the face after she pushed him while trying to keep a friend from being arrested. Five days later, the 17-year-old girl was charged with third-degree assault in the incident. Her friend, Marilyn Ellen Levias, had been stopped for jaywalking.

Walsh took Levias into custody when she refused to identify herself and tried to walk away to avoid getting a ticket. The clash between the white officer and the black women produced rare alignment between the inhabitants of distant ideological universes — and could offer an equally unique opportunity to solve a deeply rooted problem. The Rev. Al Sharpton, a liberal civil rights activist,said the blow Walsh struck was not justified, and conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly agreed that it wasn’t a measured response to Rosenthal’s provocation.

This agreement should be used to bolster the efforts to take on the behavior of bad cops and the warped thinking of those young blacks who flout authority.

For far too many blacks, police are perceived as an army of occupation, not a force that protects and serves their community. This perception and the inexcusable behavior of Rosenthal and Levias — as well as the viral video — turned a jaywalking incident into a worldwide news story.

In using what was clearly excessive force to ward off Rosenthal’s interference, Walsh showed a lack of training — or a lack of desire — to handle the situation better. Even so, he had good reason to believe he’d suffer no great penalty for what he did.

In the past, such misjudgments by cops have resulted in deaths — extrajudicial capital punishments — and sparked major race riots. Among them: the 1979 killing of Arthur McDuffie, a black insurance salesman who was beaten to death by five Miami cops after he was chased down for running a red light; the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant, by four New York cops who said they mistook him for a rape suspect; and the 2008 shooting of Robert Tolan in Bellaire, Texas, by a white cop who said he believed Tolan, the son of former pro baseball player Bobby Tolan, had just gotten out of a stolen car.

In all these cases, the officers were ultimately acquitted. This imbalance in the scales of justice, I suspect, causes some cops to think they can mistreat blacks and get away with it.

Something has to be done about this.

And something has to be said about the bad attitude and misbehavior of people like Rosenthal and Levias, who think they can contemptuously challenge authority, even when they have committed a crime. This was not their first run-in with the law. In November, Rosenthal was charged with second-degree robbery when she allegedly punched a 15-year-old boy in the face. Two years ago, she was charged with stealing a minivan. In 2009, Levias was charged with third-degree assault for allegedly pushing a sheriff’s deputy.

The tendency of cops to mistreat blacks and the alarming way some young blacks respond to authority is what should alarm us about the Seattle incident. It's this pattern of behavior that must be addressed so brush fires like this don’t again spark deadly race riots.

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