Contempt of Cop

Posted in: Law Enforcement

In a much younger life, Rob Hildum was an Assistant District Attorney in New Orleans. Today, he is a judge in Washington, D.C., the crowning achievement in a long and successful career in the law. But decades ago, he was in the Crescent City prosecuting one Black man after another. “We used to joke, ‘What are we going to do if we ever get a white guy?’”

We were sitting at his dining room table last week, talking about change. He offered me a basket of his homemade banana chocolate-chip muffins. If racism implies a particular state of mind, a knowing insistence that some people are inferior because of their race, then Hildum is not and has never been a racist. But he grew up in a conservative Long Island town and, like children everywhere, absorbed a set of beliefs about the way the world worked. Nothing in his childhood made him confront or question these beliefs, so they just existed in the background. That’s just how it was.

He went to college in Louisiana, law school in Mississippi, and became a DA in New Orleans. All the while, he continued to carry these beliefs with him. They were as easy to hold in the south as they had been in the north, and one of those beliefs was this: If you run from the cops, you’re going to get a thumping. And when you got that beating, it was your own damn fault.

“I remember seeing the video of the Rodney King beating when it first came out in 1991. I was a DA, and I remember thinking, “Well, why’d you run? That’s just how I saw things back then.” King had been driving on a California interstate when officers with the Highway Patrol tried to stop him for speeding. He led police on an eight-mile, high-speed chase and pulled over after members of the LAPD had taken over the pursuit. King’s name will be forever associated with the videoed beating that followed.

In the 1990s New Orleans, everyone knew the penalty for disobeying a cop. Hildum told me about a case he prosecuted. A young Black man was in custody for resisting arrest. Hildum was negotiating the case in the judge’s chambers with the defense lawyer and the arresting officer, but not the defendant, who was in custody. Hildum offered to let the defendant plead guilty to disorderly conduct, knowing that the sentence would be satisfied by the four months he had already served. From the defense perspective, it was a good deal.

The judge pondered the offer, leaned back in his chair and turned to the cop. “Well, did you get any justice?” The cop stroked his chin and said, “I done alright.” With that, the judge was satisfied. “Great!” the defense lawyer said. “I’ll sign him up,” meaning he would prepare the papers for a plea. No one thought twice that “justice” meant beating a presumptively innocent Black man. And what was true in New Orleans in the 1990s has always been true. A meticulous two-year study of police brutality in New York City in the 1960s identified a single “iron and inflexible rule”: to defy the police is to invite retaliation, “commencing with a summons, on up to the use of firearms.”

Hildum told me he looks back on his past with great shame. Not so much because of anything he did—as a prosecutor, Hildum said he was scrupulously fair—but because he was an uncritical part of a system that showed so little regard for Black lives, a system he will soon have to explain to his ten-year-old, African-American son.

And when he gives that explanation, he knows it will not be a history lesson but a warning, because in many ways, the past is still present. I walked out of Hildum’s home last week, checked my news feed and saw the video footage of an officer shooting Ta’Kiya Young in Ohio. Two 0fficers suspected Ms. Young of shoplifting, a charge her family denies. They approached her in the parking lot and ordered her out of her car. She refused, and thus committed a wrong that, at least to the officers, was far more serious than shoplifting.

If Ta’Kiya had driven away, the police could have followed or they could have gone directly to the courthouse and requested a warrant for her arrest. If they didn’t know her name they certainly knew what she looked like and had the license plate of the car she was driving. It wouldn’t have taken a great detective to find and arrest her later.

But that’s not what happened. One officer was at the driver’s side window while the other positioned himself in front of her car with his gun drawn. They repeated the demands, angrily (“get out of the fucking car!”), and Ms. Young asked, “What, are you going to shoot me?” As she started to move the car forward, the officer in front of the car shot her through the windshield. The 21-year-old Ms. Young died later that day, as did the child she was carrying.

Ms. Young was suspected of shoplifting, but that was obviously not the wrong that led to her death. She was shot because she did not immediately submit to the officers’ authority. Maybe she shoplifted and maybe she didn’t. But what in God’s name would lead anyone—let alone a trained officer—to think that the best way to stop a car is by standing in front of it?

It is blindingly stupid police practice because it puts the officer in a position where he cannot use less than lethal force to secure the scene and protect himself. And for what? Formal training does not teach an officer to use his body to stop a car in order to arrest an alleged shoplifter. No, the reason he positioned himself in front of the car was to make plain to Ms. Young that she disrespected police authority at pain of her life. It was a dare.

It is insulting to suggest, as some have, that the officer had no choice but to fire on Ms. Young as she began to drive towards him. A spokesperson for the police union, for instance, said the officer had to make a split-second decision as a 2000-pound vehicle bore down on him. But it is his prior decision to stand in front of her car with his gun drawn that matters.

Ta’Kiya Young and her unborn child are not dead because her car threatened an officer. They are dead because she was a young Black woman who did not promptly accede to police demands. They are dead because her disrespect demanded “street justice.”

They are dead for the same reason Tyre Nichols is dead. Nichols is the young Black man who fled from a traffic stop in Memphis, but not before officers were made to look silly by spraying a chemical agent in their own eyes. On video, one of the arresting officers expressed his hope for what would happen to Nichols when officers caught up with him: “I hope they stomp his ass.” Five Memphis officers beat him to death.

Ta’Kiya Young is dead because she committed the sin that cannot go unpunished: contempt of cop. And so long as people accept this as simply the way the world works, as Rob Hildum once did, nothing will change.

Comments are closed.