A cynical law-and-order agenda

December 4, 2009

Leela Yellesetty looks at the media and political reaction to the recent killings of five police officers in the Seattle-Tacoma area.

THE EXECUTION-style shooting of four police officers November 29 in a coffee shop in Lakewood, Wash., is being used by politicians to drive a law-and-order agenda--but other crucial social issues surrounding the case are being ignored.

The killing of four officers in the suburb of Tacoma--the worst attack on law enforcement in state history--came just a month after Seattle Police Officer Timothy Brenton was shot while in a parked patrol car on October 31. The killing followed the firebombing of four Seattle patrol cars on October 22.

For public officials and the mainstream media, these events only reinforce the image of heroic law enforcement, risking their lives in the line of duty--and, tragically, justify more violence through increased tough-on-crime policies.

"I am shocked and horrified at the murder of four police officers this morning in Pierce County," said Gov. Christine Gregoire. "Our police put their lives on the line every day, and tragedies like this remind us of the risks they continually take to keep our communities safe."

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire
Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire

King County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Sgt. John Urquhart called the five officer slayings "an assault on society...We stand between guys like this and the rest of society. When we're attacked like this, like Timothy Brenton was and these four law-enforcement officers were, this is an attack on everybody."

However a closer look at the context paints a much different picture of the "heroes" in blue.

First of all, the reason there's such an uproar surrounding these attacks is because they are so rare as to be nearly unprecedented. Contrary to common wisdom, you are at a much lower risk as a police officer than if you are on the receiving end of the law. Police have never made the list of the top 10 most dangerous jobs, making the occupation much safer than, say, a farmer or taxi driver, to name a few on the list. But deaths of people in these professions rarely make the news.

Nor are violent criminals the main threat. A 2007 study pointed out that more than half of all police deaths were car accidents. By one author's calculations, "Take out traffic accidents and other non-violent deaths, and you're left with 69 officers killed on the job by criminals last year. That's out of about 850,000 officers nationwide."

The last officer killed in the line of duty in Seattle before the recent shooting was Joselito "Lito" Barber, whose patrol car was hit by an SUV in 2006. The last shooting death was in 1994. Even this case was in the context of an arrest, rather than an unprovoked execution.

By contrast, according to a 2007 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 2003 through 2005, at least 2,002 people died during their arrests by state and local law enforcement officers. The number of arrest-related deaths increased 13 percent over the course of the three years studied. The figures could be higher, however: law-enforcement records of those killed by police are notoriously unreliable.

Reports of police killing or seriously injuring people in this city just in the last year are too numerous to list here. There was the brutal beating of Malika Calhoun at the King County Sheriff's Department. The trial of the officer involved has now been put on hold following Officer Brenton's shooting.

Equally disturbing is this video of a young man who was thrown headfirst against a wall so hard he was put into a coma and remains permanently brain damaged as a result. The victim, Christopher Harris, had nothing to do with the crime that police were investigating. He just saw cops running toward him and ran.

No 24-hour-news coverage was devoted to Harris' plight, and no public memorials or charities were created in his honor.

NONE OF this justifies the shooting of the police officers. But it does raise the question of why some lives seem to count more than others. The double standard also helps explain why some people have come to feel that the police motto "serve and protect" doesn't apply to them.

The police response here to the two shooting incidents raises further questions about their commitment to justice--as opposed to simple revenge.

As with the shooting of Officer Brenton, the hunt for a suspect in the Lakewood shootings was on immediately. Citizens were initially urged to be on the lookout for "a Black man in his 20s or 30s, between 5-feet-7-inches and 5-feet-10-inches," wearing a black coat and blue jeans.

Soon thereafter, police focused their energies on apprehending 37-year-old Maurice Clemmons, who they believe was wounded by one of the officers in the attack. On the night of November 29, police surrounded a house in Seattle's Leschi neighborhood where Clemmons was believed to be hiding, and spent hours trying to drive him out "using loudspeakers, explosions and even a robot sent into the house," the Associated Press reported. However, when they finally entered the home, nobody was there.

Police then turned to the surrounding neighborhood. This wasn't covered by the mainstream media, but according to one resident of a communal house next door, residents were ordered to evacuate their home. Afterwards, police proceeded to flood it with tear gas--making it impossible to reenter due to toxic fumes.

From there, the manhunt expanded, with hundreds of people responding to the $125,000 offer for information on Clemmons' whereabouts. Police chased trails of blood all over the city.

On early Tuesday morning, December 1, an officer came upon Clemmons in a stolen car in south Seattle. The Seattle police reported that as the officer drew his gun, the suspect "reached into his waist area and moved." The report added, "The officer fired several times, striking the suspect at least twice."

Clemmons went down near some bushes and was taken into custody. When medics from the Seattle Fire Department arrived, they pronounced him dead at the scene.

However, details connecting Clemmons to the case remain hazy. Apparently, blood was found in an abandoned pickup truck that belonged to Clemmons. And Pierce County Sheriff Department spokesman Ed Troyer told the Tacoma News-Tribune that Clemmons indicated the night before the shooting "that he was going to shoot police and watch the news."

Police claim to have in custody multiple people who allegedly helped Clemmons after the attacks, and are still searching for other suspected accomplices. The evidence against these individuals remains to be seen.

WHILE POLICE prepare their case against what they call Clemmons' "partners in crime," law-and-order politicians are using Clemmons as a poster boy for stiffer sentencing. "This guy should have never been on the street," said Brian Wurts, president of the police union in Lakewood. "Our elected officials need to find out why these people are out."

In particular, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has drawn fire for commuting Clemmons' sentence years earlier, due to the fact that he was 17 when he committed an armed robbery--a crime for which he received a 95-year sentence. Clemmons has been in and out of prison since that time.

But the real question is why he wasn't in a mental institution instead of on the street. Clemmons was charged in Washington state earlier this year with assaulting a police officer and raping a child, and investigators in the sex case said he was motivated by visions that he was Jesus Christ, and that the world was on the verge of the apocalypse. But he was released from jail after posting bail.

In an evaluation of Clemmons dated October 19, psychologists Melissa Dannelet and Carl Redick wrote:

Based on Mr. Clemmons' documented criminal history, information obtained through interviews and treatment, and a review of risk factors, it is our professional opinion that he presents with increased risk for future dangerous behavior and for committing future criminal acts jeopardizing public safety and security due to past illicit behaviors.

Those risk factors included "previous violence, young age at first violent incident, relationship instability and prior supervision failure," Dannelet and Redick wrote. However, the two said they had "insufficient grounds" to recommend Clemmons be civilly committed to a mental institution. Clemmons appeared to be suffering from no mental disease when they interviewed him October 14 for 75 minutes in jail, they reported.

One has to wonder if the decision to return Clemmons to the street rather than commit him has anything to do with the proposed $310 million in cuts to Washington state hospitals in the next two years.

According to the Washington State Hospitals Association, plans to close two wards will have a worsening impact on the already insufficient number of mental health beds for involuntarily detained patients. An additional $12.9 million in cuts would eliminate funding for community support services for individuals discharged from state hospitals.

AS A man with a violent past who is clearly in need of psychological help, it seems plausible that Clemmons did shoot the officers in Lakewood. But the media and law enforcement have also claimed to have an ironclad case against the suspect in the earlier shooting--of Officer Brenton in Seattle.

Christopher Monfort, a 41 year old charged in connection with both the shooting of Brenton and the firebombing of patrol cars, is now paralyzed from the waist down after police shot him in a confrontation at his Tukwila apartment complex in suburban Seattle.

Investigators were led there on a tip from a neighbor that Monfort's car fit the description in a police bulletin. Eyewitnesses could only make out that the car was light colored. But police believe the car in question was the same one caught on camera twice by patrol cars in the area at around the same time as the shooting: a white or light-beige 1980 to 1983 Datsun 210 coupe that might have rear-window louvers and a defective right tail light.

Anyone who has seen The Thin Blue Line, a documentary film about a wrongful conviction, will at least hesitate before accepting this assertion. Even Seattle Assistant Chief Jim Pugel cautioned at the time, "We're not saying this absolutely, that it is the vehicle" identified by witnesses to the shooting.

The police searched Monfort's home and reported they had discovered a cache of weapons, including a .223 caliber rifle, which a ballistics test identified as the firearm used in the murder of Officer Brenton. In addition, they claimed to have found a considerable amount of bomb-making materials. The crowning piece of evidence connecting Monfort to both crimes, police claim, is a DNA test, which apparently links him to a flag bandana found at the scene of the arson and a flag at the shooting site.

All this may sound convincing, especially in the way it is reported in the media. But Monfort is supposed to be, under the law, innocent until proven guilty. And a cursory look at the history of cop-killer convictions will reveal that emotion and the rush to convict can sometimes get in the way of justice, to put it mildly. It is not unknown for police departments to fabricate or fudge evidence, or for lab results to be much less conclusive than reported.

Add this to the fact that Monfort does not seem a likely candidate for the crime. His family members expressed shock and disbelief at his arrest. Longtime family friend Vicky Malone said she was mystified that Monfort could be considered a suspect:

I don't get this. People that run around and kill cops have tons and tons of other stuff in their record, and Chris had no gang stuff, I know that...You don't see people that commit real violent crimes that have never been caught for anything.

She added that Monfort was always worried about being targeted because of his race.

Besides a couple traffic tickets, Monfort had no prior criminal record. To the contrary, at age 21, he had applied to be a police officer in California. More recently, he studied criminal justice at Highline Community College in a Seattle suburb, later transferring to the University of Washington to earn a degree in law, societies and justice in 2008. He also worked as volunteer at the ACLU and at a juvenile detention center.

One of his professors at Highline who became a mentor was Garry Wegner, who spent 20 years as the deputy director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, the organization that trains many of the state's law enforcement officers. Wegner, who described Monfort as "a mature, stable individual," said he was shocked to hear that his former student is the suspect in Brenton's slaying. "You've shaken me to my toes," he told a Seattle Times reporter. "He's one of those people you thought would make a difference, a positive, constructive difference."

Despite his political passions, no friends or acquaintances from his past believed that Monfort would resort to violence to get his views across.

Whoever killed Officer Brenton, his death, along with those of the Lakewood officers, is being used to mount a right-wing, law-and-order campaign. Law enforcement agencies and their political supporters have seized the opportunity to claim a greater share of public resources at a time when budget cuts are forcing cutbacks of vital government services.

In fact, even before the recent series of events, public safety remained the number one priority of the Seattle city government, despite crime rates being at a 40-year low. With schools, libraries, public health, food assistance and a host of other social services facing budget cuts, the number of cops on the streets continued to increase. Plans to build a new $200 million jail in the city are on hold, but still on the table.

Now, local politicians will be bolstered in their insistence in continuing down this path, and law enforcement has lost no time in ramping up harassment and profiling of communities of color.

This is an absurd solution in a state that plans how many prison beds will be needed in the future based on third grade reading scores--and then proceeds to cut school funding. Pursuit of this police-vs.-social spending strategy is bound to produce more young people condemned to a life of violence.

The only way to end this downward spiral is a struggle to demand an end to police brutality, and the poverty and racism on which it thrives.

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