I often write about police misconduct in the hope that honorable officers will be heartened by the exposure of dishonorable officers and policies, officers and policies they often must leave unmentioned and untouched if they wish to continue their police careers. I suppose I’m naïve enough to believe that when blue-suited cockroaches have been exposed to the light of the kitchen, not only will they scurry back under the refrigerator, but someone will actually take steps to eradicate them once and for all. Such is the burden of the eternal optimist.
Now we have another example that might benefit from public exposure which, on first glance, involves compelling elements: the exercise, by a citizen, of a fundamental right, the denial of that right by officialdom, and potential criminal acts by the police. The public officials involved say otherwise. Ultimately, they’re wrong. Fox News has the story:
A New York man, frustrated when his pro-Second Amendment sign kept disappearing, was surprised when the hidden camera he set up revealed the culprit to be a local cop.
Jon Gibson, of rural Lake Lincolndale, about 50 miles north of New York City, told FoxNews.com he set up a hunting field camera near the sign, which reads ‘Protect the Second Amendment,’ and features the silhouette of an assault rifle, after two mysteriously vanished. A third sign disappeared before the camera finally captured the sign stealer — a police officer from the nearby Somers Police Department.
‘It was pure shock to see,’ Gibson said to FoxNews.com about first seeing the video recorded on Monday. ‘He had a huge smile on his face as he’s kicking down the sign. I was in total disbelief to see such criminal behavior from a law-enforcement officer.
This may seem like an open-and-shut case of official misconduct, but it is at least a bit more complex:
Gibson’s lawyer, Richard Bombardo, told FoxNews.com that they are currently having his property surveyed to be certain that the signs were not on the public right-of-way, which, though on Gibson’s property, would be restricted for signage.
‘If the sign was close enough to public property, then they were within their right,’ Bombardo said to FoxNews.com. ‘But if it was solely on his property, that’s where the issue is.”
Thus we have a right of way, zoning or sign posting issue potentially involved. Keep in mind, however, the signs posted by conservatives touting conservative issues are commonly torn down across the nation, and sometimes, by public officials. And what do local officials have to say about it?
“Somers Town Supervisor Mary Beth Murphy told FoxNews.com that the signs were indeed on public property — within 15 feet of the road — and were removed to comply with town ordinances.
‘The town does not allow signs in the right of way,’ Murphy said. ‘The police chief had received numerous complaints from neighbors and it was determined that the sign was posted in the right of way.
Murphy also denied Gibson’s claim that the officer had attempted to destroy the sign.
‘I have seen the images that were taken, but it is my understanding that he was loosening the sign from the ground,’ she said. ‘It was brought to the Police Department and it is still intact and he (Gibson) would be able to come pick it up.’
However, images provided to FoxNews.com by Gibson clearly show the officer in mid-kick, snapping the post of the sign in half.
Murphy also said that there was never a fine issued, but that Gibson did receive a letter from the Somer Building Department.
Gibson says that he never received any sort of citation and that he’s been singled out as other signs in the area have been left undisturbed.
Let us, for the sake of argument, give the City of Somer, NY the benefit of the doubt. Let us assume that there really is such a law prohibiting signs in the right of way and that the sign in question was in violation of the law. Let us also assume there were actually multiple citizen complaints about the sign. Let us also assume that the city Building Department actually sent Gibson a letter.
It is entirely possible that Gibson never received such a letter, and even if he did, apparently the authorities are not explaining what the letter said, what demands—if any—it made, and what time frames for compliance—if any—were set forth. And if this was really a concern of city hall, why didn’t they simply send a building inspector or similar public servant out to speak with Mr. Gibson, explain the law, and ask for his compliance? How else could they be reasonably certain he knew of their concern?
And now we come to the police. Any police officer in his right mind would know that merely taking the sign without notifying the owner would cause the owner to think that criminals were stealing his property, and would likely cause him to replace it. Therefore, not only would failing to notify the owner not only fail to correct the violation of the law, it would almost certainly cause additional violations of the law. Bad for the community, bad for the citizen and bad for the police who have to continually deal with an issue they should have resolved the first time.
No rational police officer, breaking and taking a sign from a citizen’s yard, would think “they’ll know it was obviously the police taking their property and will come to the police department to retrieve it.” It is also highly likely that if Mr. Gibson called the police to report the thefts, the dispatcher and officers on duty would know nothing of the officer(s) that previously removed the signs.
Any competent police force would stop by the Gibson home—the police are on duty 24/7/365, after all–until they were able to speak with Mr. Gibson. They would explain the law, and ask him to move the sign off the right of way, and if necessary, explain the consequences of failing to comply with the law. This is the only way they could ensure that their legitimate law enforcement goal—if it were legitimate—could be accomplished. But they did not, which has led to the photos accompanying this article, which are anything but good PR for the Somer Police Department, and the police everywhere. Gibson notes:
This isn’t about the Second Amendment. My First Amendment and even my Fifth Amendment rights have been violated,’ he said, explaining that words and image on the sign are protected by his right to free speech and the sign itself was taken from him without due process.
Quite so. Even if the police were merely enforcing the law in this case, which is possible but remains unclear, the police and city government have not only provoked an unnecessary controversy, they have made themselves look like arrogant oppressors. In addition, the Second Amendment element of this story also conspires to further diminish citizen respect for government at all levels. It is not unreasonable to believe that the police, hating the Second Amendment and those who exercise their rights under it, took it upon themselves to commit a bit of vandalism and theft. The grin on the officer’s face as he breaks the sign (second photo)The Se does not look like a dispassionate public servant merely doing his job in a fair and professional manner.
One would hope the police were smart enough not to put their collective ankles in this sort of public relations bear trap, but obviously not in Somer, NY.
This might sound a little crass, but this cop is lucky the sign owner has a reverence for life.
Mike McDaniel said:
While neither of us is in any way threatening or encouraging violence against the police anywhere, you’re right. The police depend upon citizens for voluntary compliance with the law. Smart officers know that if citizens did not voluntarily obey the law most of the time, and refrain from violence against authority, they would have no chance. They know that they must, at all times, act in ways that encourage citizens to continue to respect and support them. It would seem these officers have forgotten that essential fact of police effectiveness and survival. Bad will is cumulative and tends to strike even those that honor their obligations to the public. Most people see only a blue uniform, not individuals.
Mike, if you were this cop’s boss, what do you think would be the appropriate punishment?
I saw this on the discussion board where it was initially reported before it became a national story. According to the homeowner in question, he did receive a letter about the sign from the Building Inspector’s Office. It said that they’d received complaints and that the sign needed to be removed.
The homeowner then called the BI office and explained to them that his sign was an expression of his first amendment rights. The BI told him over the phone, that he could leave it up “for now”.
After the sign started disappearing, the homeowner again called the BI to ask if they sign was being removed by the city, the BI assured him that they were not taking his signs, that if the sign was still considered to be a violation, they would cite him, not just remove it without notifying him.
After all that is when he decided to put up the trail camera to catch the person (who he assumed was an anti-second amendment neighbor) that was stealing his signs.
I don’t know what (if any) impact that information has on your analysis, but those are the details as I understand them.
Mike McDaniel said:
Thanks for the update. Even if the BI’s office did all of this, it was still the obligation of the police to deal with the issue in a professional, rational manner that would not only achieve a legitimate police purpose, but would engage citizen involvement and support. The city made mistakes in just about every way imaginable here.
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