When Police (and Punitive Populists) Attack

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Three times each week, 36-year-old Keith Briscoe of Winslow Township, New Jersey would begin his day by going to a nearby Wawa convenience store for soda and cigarettes. Briscoe, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and lived with his parents, went to the local Steininger Behavior Services clinic for treatment, and he would have a smoke outside the store while waiting for the office to open.

As far as anyone in the neighborhood could recall, Briscoe had never bothered anybody. He wasn’t causing trouble on the morning of May 3, 2010, when he had the lethal misfortune of attracting the attention of Winslow Township Police Officer Sean Richards.

When Richards demanded to know who he was and what he was doing, Briscoe was cooperative, telling the officer — who had no business bothering one of his betters anyway — that he was waiting to go to the clinic. Richards should have left well enough alone, but since he had a gun,  a piece of government-provided jewelry, and an unearned sense of superiority, he didn’t. He demanded that Briscoe get into his police cruiser, supposedly to be given a ride to the clinic. Briscoe wisely turned down the offer.

Richards later admitted that he hadn’t received any complaints about Briscoe’s behavior, and that he did nothing that warranted an arrest. Yet when the harmless and intimidated man refused to get into the police car, Richards committed an act of criminal assault by seizing and attempting to handcuff him. As Briscoe tried to escape, Richards called for “backup.” He also attacked Briscoe with his Oleoresin Casicum spray, a “non-lethal” chemical weapon that left the victim choking and struggling for breath. At this point, three bystanders saw Briscoe struggling with a uniformed assailant, a situation that presented them with the “Tom Joad Test,” which I’ve previously described thus:

“When you see a cop — or, more likely, several of them — beating up on a prone individual, do you instinctively sympathize with the assailant(s) or the victim? Do you assume that the state is entitled to the benefit of the doubt whenever its agents inflict violence on somebody, or do you believe that the individual — any individual — is innocent of wrongdoing until his guilt has been proven?”

The bystanders failed the test. Rather than intervening on behalf of the victim, they reflexively gave the uniformed assailant the benefit of the doubt, and joined in the beating. Five more armed tax-feeders, summoned by Richards’s frantic call for “backup,” then arrived to pile on. A few minutes later, Briscoe was dead as a result of “traumatic asphyxia” — that is, he suffocated at the bottom of a thugscrum. The Camden County Medical Examiner ruled the death a homicide.

Richards, the chief assailant, was not charged with criminal homicide. According to the county prosecutor’s office, although Richards had committed an illegal arrest, he couldn’t be charged with homicide because New Jersey “law” doesn’t recognize the unalienable right of innocent people to resist unlawful arrest. This supposedly means that once Briscoe “resisted being taken into custody, police had the right to take actions necessary to restrain him” — up to and including the use of lethal force. Richards was charged with simple assault and as a result was sentenced to a year on probation and the loss of his job. He also agreed that he would never seek to expunge his record, although it’s not clear how that provision could be enforced.

“This plea ensures that Richards will be forever barred from holding such a position of authority again,” insisted Camden County Prosecutor Warren W. Faulk. Actually, it’s entirely possible that Richards will join the ranks of corrupt, disgraced  “gypsy cops” who invariably find employment elsewhere as members of the coercive caste.

None of the other four police officers who collaborated in the crime has been punished at all. However, all five officers, along with the “Samaritans” who collaborated in the murder of Keith Briscoe, are the subjects of a $25 million civil lawsuit filed on behalf of the victim’s family.

Legal commentator Elie Mystal points out that the “Good Samaritans” in this matter had no reason — apart from a “reflexive trust of police” — to assume that Sean Richards was justified in using force to subdue Briscoe. “They chose the wrong side, and now a man is dead,” Mystal observes. “There should be some kind of punishment for that.”

“And don’t tell me that holding these people accountable will have some kind of  ‘chilling effect’ on the willingness of citizens to help their fellow man,” Mystal continues. “This is America! We are founded on a skepticism of authority. We believe that a person is innocent until proven guilty. It’s entirely consistent with the American experience … [not to assume] that police officers are always right or on the side of good.”

The Mundanes who joined in the assault will most likely end up ruined financially. The same is true of Sean Richards, now that he’s no longer wearing the habiliments of the State’s punitive priesthood. But the others still employed as agents of coercion will probably be spared similar hardship through a settlement worked out in collaboration with the local armed tax-feeders’ union.

And still, somehow we’re supposed to believe that the take-away here is that the lawsuit poses a new threat to “officer safety,” because it will discourage Mundanes from coming to the aid of police next time they assault a helpless individual.

“They saw a cop struggling and they jumped into action,” says Tim Quinlan, the attorney representing Sean Richards, of the Mundanes who helped murder Keith Briscoe. “Now you’re going to have cops getting killed because people are afraid to get involved.”

Somehow that unlikely prospect fails to send a chill down my spine, or leave me prostrate with inconsolable grief.

10:39 pm on February 11, 2011