So why do we, as citizens, often treat police officers with a general mistrust, suspicion and fear? The answer is both simple and complex. Americans are wary about police officers because we have entrusted them with such a critical duty. More important, we have handed to them an authority that — even if slightly abused — can have catastrophic consequences.
After 20 years as a criminal defense lawyer in Oklahoma City, I have found 99 percent of the city’s police force to be decent men and women trying to do the right thing at all times. What concerns me, and what should concern all citizens, is the 1 percent of officers who don’t do the right thing at all times.
Two officers who may be perceived as included in that 1-percent category, I believe, were working the day Robin Howard was beaten, arrested and taken to the hospital. Howard died in that hospital four days later.
According to the official police report, the officers used a technique called a “knee strike” to subdue Howard and take him into custody. However, somewhere in the altercation, the officers broke his rib, puncturing his lung, eventually leading to the infection that killed him.
Officials never notified his family that he was in the hospital, nor did they notify them he had died until four days after the fact. OKC Police Chief Bill Citty admits his department “dropped the ball.”
Officials say Howard resisted arrest, fled from the officers and fought with them, and if he had simply followed their commands, none of this would have happened. I wasn’t there when police arrested Howard, so I don’t know exactly what happened. Sadly, the only witness to the arrest, aside from the officers, died four days later.
But even if the officers are telling the truth, does that mean the questions should stop there? My answer is a resounding no!
This case has several puzzling contradictions. Does the family deserve full disclosure about how he was killed? Should we accept police officers at their word in these cases, never asking for facts beyond those which they have given to us?
I believe, in a case like this, we must look for truth, using common sense as our guide. Think about yourself at work. Have you ever made a mistake? Ever seen someone lie to cover up a problem?
I have no desire to pick on police officers and make their very tough job even tougher. But as an American who is justifiably suspicious of power and authority, I have a moral duty to question how that power and authority is used. More than that, I have an obligation to speak up when I believe that power and authority is abused.
Slane, a criminal defense attorney, is representing the Howard family, pro bono, in their attempt to obtain information from the OKC Police Department.