ESSAY- Police state: Has common sense taken leave?

A culture of meanness has come to characterize many aspects of the nation's governmental and social policies. "Meanness today is a state of mind," writes Nicholas Mills in his book, The Triumph of Meanness, "the product of a culture of spite and cruelty that has had an enormous impact on us." But until it happens to us, it's easy to close our eyes and go on with our everyday lives. 

You would think that a small town that was the home of Thomas Jefferson, one of our founding fathers who zealously preached civil liberties, would be a buffer against the culture of meanness. But such is not the case here.

Last year, 70-year-old Rich Collins was distributing handbills to announce his candidacy to represent the people of Charlottesville in the Virginia House of Delegates. But Collins was apparently exercising his First Amendment right and fulfilling his fundamental responsibility as an American to be engaged in the democratic process at the wrong place. The former University of Virginia professor was forcibly handcuffed, arrested, and sent to jail by police officers after he was asked to stop campaigning at a shopping center.

More recently, a 69-year-old woman was offered no mercy by local authorities when she briefly left her sleeping grandchild in her car to run into the grocery store. Since she was going into the store only to get a couple of items and it was a moderately cool day, she decided to crack the windows and sun-roof and leave her grandchild undisturbed. Moments after leaving the parking lot, the woman was pulled over by several patrol vehicles and handcuffed. When her grandchild awoke and began screaming for his grandmother, the police refused to let her hold him and took her to jail. The 69-year-old woman was left with bruises and marks on her wrists.

Far from hardened criminals, these two Central Virginians and many others like them are treated like street thugs, despite not having committed any serious crime. At one time, the police would merely have lectured these two upstanding citizens. Certainly, no one would have been handcuffed, arrested, and jailed.

However, their stories represent a symptom of a much broader and growing problem in America. Perhaps out of fear or some other innate human element, America has grown cold and callous and often lacks common sense in its accepted brutal treatment of others who commit small wrongs or merely make mistakes. We see school children placed at the heart of our court system and treated like hardened criminals. Many find negative marks placed on their permanent records due to the harsh treatment of zero-tolerance policies. 

Average Americans who make unwise but nonetheless harmless decisions are treated like drug traffickers or other dangerous criminals. It seems that everyone is now a criminal-in-waiting.

Consider the story of Margaret Kimbrell of Rock Hill, South Carolina. This 75-year-old woman who suffered from arthritis and had six broken ribs was given a 50,000-volt shock from a police taser gun and was forced to spend three hours behind bars. Describing the pain from being tasered, Kimbrell stated, "It was the worst pain. It felt like something going through my body. I thought I was dying. I said, 'Lord, let it be over.'"    

What led to this horrifying experience was Margaret's refusal to leave a nursing home before she had the opportunity to visit a friend whose well-being she was concerned about. According to the police, Margaret posed a threat. They claim she was waving her arms and threatening the staff. Her response was, "As weak as I am, how could I do that?" 

In Portland, Oregon, authorities seemed to have abandoned their common sense and good judgment when they pepper-sprayed and tasered Eunice Crowder, a blind 71-year-old woman. What began as an attempt by a city employee to remove unsightly shrubs and trash from the handicapped woman's yard ended in a show of what many believe to be excessive force.

After the city employees began to remove her belongings from her yard, Crowder became concerned that a 90-year-old wagon, which was a family heirloom, had been placed in the truck to be hauled away with her other belongings. She told the city employees that she was concerned about the wagon, explained why it was so important to her, and asked if she could enter their truck to search for it. 

When the elderly woman entered the truck in search of her treasure, after being told not to, the city employees called police. The situation worsened. Crowder had one foot on the curb and the other on the bumper of the trailer when one of the police officers stepped on her foot. Crowder, being blind, asked who it was. Moments later, one of the officers struck her on the head– which dislodged her prosthetic eye– kicked her in the back and pepper-sprayed her in the face.

Students are also facing these issues in schools across America through strict zero tolerance policies. When a high school junior in Kentucky wrote a story about zombies taking over his high school, he was sent to the principal's office. School officials then contacted the police, which led to a search of the student's home and his arrest. Despite the student's plea that the story was merely fiction, he was charged with second-degree felony terrorist threatening. What began as a creative story, the kind thousands of kids have written, ended in a permanent criminal charge that will haunt this young man for the rest of his life.     

As one commentator noted, "Kids have been kicked out of school for possession of Midol, Tylenol, Alka Seltzer, cough drops, and Scope mouthwash– contraband that violates zero-tolerance anti-drug policies. Students have been expelled for Halloween costumes that included paper swords and fake spiked knuckles, as well as for possessing rubber bands, slingshots, and toy guns– all violations of anti-weapons policies."    

While many of these shocking stories go unnoticed, experts see an alarming trend in many small pockets of America. In fact, a report issued by Human Rights Watch suggests that abuse by public officials against average citizens for minor, often innocent, acts "remains one of the most serious and divisive human rights violations in the United States."  

These are the questions we need to ask ourselves in our local community: Are we really any safer? Does the punishment really fit the crime? Have we lost our common sense in order to secure a false sense of safety? 

I don't know about you, but I don't think I'm going to sleep any better tonight just because these local "criminals" were taken off the streets or suspended from school.