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EDITORIAL: Mistaken Identity

2/26/2014, 3 p.m.
Courtesy of Wikipedia

Metro Transit Police Chief Ron Pavlik has some explaining to do.

Last week, Dunbar High School teacher Brandi Byrd and 15 students were on their way back to school after a field trip to the National Holocaust Museum when she was accosted by a police officer.

The plainclothes officer handcuffed Byrd at the Mt. Vernon Square station and is shown in a video shoving her up against a wall. The officer held Byrd for 20 minutes before releasing her.

The explanation offered is that Metro police were investigating reports of an assault involving young people.

If that was the case, why was Byrd – an adult – handcuffed and manhandled? Did the officer assume that the 5-foot 2-inch teacher was a student? Byrd encouraged her students to capture the events and several of them recorded her brief detention on their cell phones.

One student told an NBC4 reporter that he asked the officer why he was being so aggressive to a woman. Metro Police officials told the reporter that Byrd was agitated and disorderly. So what? If you are unlawfully detained and know you’ve done nothing wrong, don’t you have the right to be agitated?

We now understand from Metro police officials that the incident was one of mistaken identity so what Pavlik should have done was to offer Byrd a public apology. We hope that’s forthcoming.

What should be of concern and what the Byrd case illustrates is the thin line between security, aggression and the abuse of power. Some police do their job with a soft touch, others embrace the more macho, brutish approach.

The rights citizens in this country and this city enjoy is enshrined in the Constitution, but it’s clear that Americans have unwittingly ceded too much of their freedom to the powers-that-be. We have witnessed the ratcheting up of progressively aggressive policing and the increased militarization of police forces nationally in the name of security, particularly since 9/11.

These developments demand constant public vigilance.

Author and Attorney Chase Madar aptly captures this troubling trend in a TomDispatch article, “How Every Part of American Life Became a Police Matter.”

“… American over-policing involves far more than the widely reported up-armoring of your local precinct. It's also the way police power has entered the DNA of social policy, turning just about every sphere of American life into a police matter,” Madar said. “Even as simple a matter as getting yourself from point A to point B can quickly become a law enforcement matter as travel and public space are ever more aggressively policed. Waiting for a bus? Such loitering just got three Rochester youths HYPERLINK "http://gawker.com/three-teens-arrested-for-waiting-while-black-1474787941" arrested. Driving without a seat belt can easily escalate into an HYPERLINK "http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-judge-ucla-20131126,0,3286857.story" l "axzz2lhF1Ae13" arrest, even if the driver is a state judge. (Notably, all four of these men were black.) If the police think you might be carrying drugs, warrantless body cavity searches at the nearest hospital may be in the offing – you will be HYPERLINK "http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/11/anal-probes-and-the-drug-_n_4254600.html" sent the bill later.”

While there’s no telling if race was a factor in Byrd’s detention, there’s ample evidence which indicates Americans are treated differently by police.

As Madar explains, “ HYPERLINK "http://www.amazon.com/dp/1781680698/ref=nosim/?tag=tomdispatch-20" It will surprise no one that Americans are not all treated equally by the police. Law enforcement picks on kids more than adults, the queer more than straight, Muslims more than Methodists – HYPERLINK "https://www.aclu.org/blog/tag/nypd-muslim-surveillance" Muslims HYPERLINK "https://www.aclu.org/human-rights/report-blocking-faith-freezing-charity" a lot HYPERLINK "http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/08/fbi-terrorist-informants" more HYPERLINK "http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/09/fbi-islam-qaida-irrelevant/" than Methodists – antiwar activists more than the apolitical. Above all, our punitive state targets the poor more than the wealthy and Blacks and Latinos more than white people.”

We must speak out, express outrage, demand accountability or we will continue to hear about cases like Byrd’s. Today it was her, tomorrow it could be you.