Tell Me This Didn’t Happen in America!

I am enclosing this article from Nicholas Kristof which was in the New York Times Sunday Review OpEd on January 25, 2014.


imagesCAK2ZW8P“If you think that protests about overzealous law enforcement are over the top, listen to what unfolded when the police suspected that David Eckert, 54, was hiding drugs in his rectum. Eckert is a shy junk dealer struggling to get by in Hidalgo County, N.M. He lives a working-class life, drives a 16-year-old pickup and was convicted in 2008 of methamphetamine possession.

“Police officers, suspecting he might still be involved in drugs, asked him to step out of his pickup early last year after stopping him for a supposed traffic violation. No drugs or weapons were found on Eckert or in his truck, but a police dog showed interest in the vehicle and an officer wrote that Eckert’s posture was ‘erect and he kept his legs together. That led the police to speculate that he might be hiding drugs internally, so they took him in handcuffs to a nearby hospital emergency room and asked the doctor, Adam Ash, to conduct a forcible search of his rectum. Dr. Ash refused, saying it would be unethical…

“Eckert, protesting all the while, says he asked to make a phone call but was told that he had no right to do so because he hadn’t actually been arrested. The police then drove Eckert 50 miles to the emergency room of the Gila Regional Medical Center, where doctors took X-rays of Eckert’s abdomen and performed a rectal examination. No drugs were found, so doctors performed a second rectal exam, again unavailing. Doctors then gave Eckert an enema and forced him to have a bowel movement in the presence of a nurse and policeman, according to a lawsuit that Eckert filed. When no narcotics were found, a second enema was administered. Then a third…

“After hours of fruitless searches, police and doctors arranged another X-ray and finally anesthetized Eckert and performed a colonoscopy. Nothing was found inside of Mr. Eckert,’ the police report notes. So after he woke up, he was released — after 13 hours, two rectal exams, three enemas, two X-rays and a colonoscopy. The hospital ended up billing Eckert $6,000… A few days ago, the city and county settled the lawsuit by paying Eckert $1.6 million…”

Kristof concludes his report by discussing the inequality that lies behind our “War on Drugs,” “driving while black,” stop and frisk policies, and “zero tolerance” with regard to school discipline codes that lead to many low-income children to be suspended and often charged with adult crime. “This inequality,” Kristol reminds us, has a racial element to it, but it is also about social class.” Those of us in the comfortable middle-class might view this as necessary acts of protection. On the other hand, young men of color often see it as threatening. “So as we discuss inequality in America… it’s also about something as fundamental as our dignity, our humanity and our access to justice; it’s about the right of working stiffs not to endure forced colonoscopies.”

[To read Kristof’s entire story, CLICK HERE]

[For more, read this news article from CNN on Eckert’s law suit and settlement this week: CLICK HERE.]

I hope Kristof is wrong. I hope this is not a trend. I often step back and say to myself, there’s a lot of police officers out there who would NEVER do these kinds of things. But then a “bad apple” in blue does something stupid (at least in the public’s eyes) and spoils the barrel.

It is widely-cast articles such as these, frightening YouTube videos of police dash cameras capturing both danger and foolishness – like police shooting at a mom who fled a traffic stop with a car load of kids. [To view that incident CLICK HERE.]

I wonder what would happen if every day we heard of and saw examples of malpractice in other occupations that have responsibility for our health and safety? If every day I saw news stories about tragic medical malpractices and heard complaints from my friends and neighbors about physicians, nurses, and other medical practitioners who had harmed them, would I also come to distrust them? That’s why professional standards need to cultivate trust in us and professional boards make sure their practitioners toe the line.

The same realization needs to come to our nation’s police and their leaders. They know the professional standards. Yes, they are difficult to practice (just like Dr Ash did in Kristof’s story: he remember his oath to do no harm and that meant to a suspected drug dealer in police custody). Yes, ethics are difficult to practice. Yet even in Kristof’s account, we have other physicians willing to invade Eckert’s body. One doctor said no, another said yes.  Even physicians have problems with ethical decision-making.

Nevertheless, our nation’s police need to realize this:

  • You are in the eyes of the public at all times.
  • You are a model of how our justice system treats people and respects their rights.
  • You need to always remember you represent our great nation and who we are as a people.
  • You must remember this and act properly at all times.

I may be a voice crying out in the wilderness, but cry out I will. I didn’t devote three decades of my life to a the noble cause of policing in order to stand by and see it threatened.

And for those who lead our nation’s police: Practice excellence and demand it in others. Be responsible and accountable. Speak out. No cover-ups. 

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About improvingpolice

I served over 20 years as the chief of police in Madison (WI), four years as chief of the Burnsville (MN) Police Department, and before that as a police officer in Edina (MN) and the City of Minneapolis. I hold graduate degrees from the University of Minnesota and Edgewood College in Madison. I have written many articles over my years as a police leader calling for police improvement (for example, How To Rate Your Local Police, and with my wife, Sabine, Quality Policing: The Madison Experience). After retiring from the police department, I answered a call to ministry, attended seminary, and was ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. At the present time, I serve a small church in North Lake (WI), east of Madison. Sabine and I have nine adult children, eleven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. She is also a retired police officer and we both continue active lives.

7 Responses to “Tell Me This Didn’t Happen in America!”

  1. Perhaps someone should have a word with the judicial official who approved the search warrant application.

  2. You wonder how the interview board pick these guys to join their police departments, pass the academy, pass their probation, and manage to get convictions with their sloppy writing and lousy excuses to obtain search warrants. You also wonder how the judge manage to get into law school, pass the bar, practice law, and become a judge to approve a poorly oral/written explanation to obtain a warrant.

    • In Pennsylvania, search warrants are approved by Magisterial District Judges, who are not required to be attorneys. Some magistrates are lawyers, but most are not. Those who are not licensed attorneys must attend a four-week training program, and pass a certification exam.

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