Florida sheriff’s bizarre defense of abusive police



CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Two weeks ago, two Florida deputies shot 15 rounds at a 60-year-old unarmed Florida man who was looking for his cigarettes in his mother’s car, parked in his own driveway. Two of those bullets hit him in his left leg, which was shattered.

Roy Howard Middleton says he was compliant when the cops told him to turn around. He says that as he was turning around to face deputies with his hands raised, they opened fire. (He believed his neighbors were playing a practical joke on him). The two deputies said they were responding to a 911 call about a car thief and that Middleton turned and “lunged” at them with a shiny object in his hand. Middleton is black. The two sheriff’s deputies are white.

Sheriff David Morgan of Escambia County hastily took to the airwaves to explain that “the tragedy of this is the noncompliance to the directions of law enforcement officers,” and that Middleton was “both a suspect and a victim.” The two deputies were placed on administrative leave pending an investigation by the State Attorney’s Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Sheriff Morgan was quick to clarify for CNN that the officers followed the correct protocols. “Right now we are comfortable from a training perspective that our officers did follow standard protocols. I believe the standard we use and train to is a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, which is a reasonable test.” Morgan went on to note that “this is a common occurrence. We live in a very violent society.”

Presumably the irony was unintentional.

A week later six Escambia County deputies climbed through the window of a private residence, without a warrant, dragging a sleeping couple out of their bed, shooting at their two dogs, one of which later died. The police were pursuing a suspect in an armed disturbance earlier in the evening on the couple’s street, found an upside-down bucket next to a window of their home, knocked on the door, and when nobody answered, they just entered through the window. According to a press release, “Upon encountering the people in the house, the dogs became aggressive. One dog bit at one of the deputy’s leg. He pushed the dog away, but it came at him again so he shot the dog in self-defense, at which time the second dog began to run towards him. For his personal safety, he shot the second dog.”

The couple, who are white, say they were asleep in bed. Then the cops threw them on the ground, handcuffed them and dragged them into the hallway, and then started shooting at the dogs. No arrests were made. That case is also being investigated.

Now, Sheriff David Morgan is a colorful character. He has garnered public attention for actions as serious as a Justice Department finding in May that the county jail he oversees is plagued by constitutional issues and still suffers from the results of a decades-long racial segregation policy, and as frivolous as wearing his military ribbons on his police uniform in defiance of Defense Department regulations. But one might hope that on the heels of the recent unpleasantness, he would be very, very careful in his public discussions of race, crime and police conduct.

Well, not so. This week Sherriff Morgan spoke at a weekly Rotary Club of Pensacola meeting and made it clear that the real victim of the racial injustice here is Sheriff David Morgan. You should watch it. It’s a case study in grievance — and blame-shifting. The video includes a horribly painful opening joke referring to the recent police actions and the attention they garnered as “turds” he was being forced to swallow.

Your call whether the humor is rankly offensive, mildly inappropriate, or fair game. But the meat of the speech appears to be an attempt to recalibrate the media outrage generated by armed officers shooting at an unarmed black man 15 times, into media outrage that is somehow both race-blind, and targeted at black offenders.

The substance of Morgan’s argument is that the community must “address statistics for what they are and not inject race.” Then he proceeds to inject race. And then he does it again.

Let’s go to the tape. Morgan says he is upset at the apparent “lack of race relations” in the county. In Morgan’s telling, he has made a “concerted effort to reach across the racial divide” and he believed he had built some bridges and was appalled at recent events. So far so good. But then he “extends the hand of friendship” and seeks to start a “national dialogue” based on “statistical data and the truth.”

Morgan says that he is “hobbled by the law” and complains that he is unable to defend the actions of the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office (which he is presumably now doing) because of pending investigations into the misconduct of his officers — a situation he likens, weirdly, to “allowing a deputy to handcuff you and beat you because you can’t defend yourself.” This is of course not far from what his officers allegedly did to the actual victims in these incidents, and comparing what the media is doing to Sherriff Morgan, to what law enforcement officers did to their unarmed victims is so fatuous, it makes you want to weep. He seems to have no notion of the distinction between police violence and media criticism.

But that’s not all. It’s at this point that Morgan pivots to argue that to achieve a real national dialogue on race, “those of you in the white community must overcome your fear of being labeled a racist. Because that’s what we all fear in trying to open a dialogue with minority communities. It’s when we enter that first juncture of the disagreement we will be called a racist. Anybody want that label?”

Then Morgan loftily adds that we “must address those statistics for what they are, and not inject race,” adding, “Last night we had four black male teenagers attacked a 77-year-old white man. Where was the public outrage in that?”

He cites another attack in which “two black males and one black female brutally attacked a white female . . . beat her to death with a hammer and crowbar . . . where is the public outrage in that?”

Then he cites another execution-style murder by an armed black male against a white male. Plus graphic crime scene details. None of these cases involves the police. They’re just examples of vicious black-on-white crimes that presumably justify — what, exactly? Police brutality? Racial profiling? More warrantless searches?

Morgan never exactly tells us what we are meant to conclude from all these allegedly neutral “statistics,” but it’s certainly implied: The real racism in America is in fact directed at white people who are not allowed to defend themselves from being called racists whenever they act like racists.

It’s not easy to be a cop in Florida today, making split-second decisions about who is carrying a gun at 2:40 in the morning, especially in light of the fact that at the rate we are going, you’d be insane not to carry a gun at 2:40 in the morning. Nobody really doubts that law enforcement will only become more brutal and violent to accommodate the brutality and violence of our legal rules. But that isn’t what’s actually bothering Sheriff David Morgan. What bothers him is that Americans are still capable of outrage when innocent people are brutalized in their homes by his police officers. What should bother the rest of us is that he is not.

Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.

© 2013, Slate

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