Ferguson. Sanford. Tallahassee.
What do the news items synonymous with these places have in common?
It’s not what you might think. It has nothing to do with perceived archvillains like Darren Wilson, George Zimmerman or Jameis Winston. I don’t believe in archvillains.
I do believe, though, in the predictability of human nature. Sometimes, human beings behave badly. And sometimes, that bad behavior steps over the bounds of the law.
The people who are vested with the power to stop those who cross the lines — the police — are often steeped in their own good intentions. They have their own vision for a better world, and their own ideas of what the next, best course of action is.
They can also be dead wrong. And it takes nothing less than national, front-page headlines to call them on their errors. Over and over and over again.
Ferguson, Sanford and, now, Tallahassee are all lessons in failed transparency. They’re also case studies in the failure to equally apply the law.
In Ferguson, we had a police department that determined that the people’s right to know exactly what happened on the night that teenager Michael Brown was shot dead was less important than protecting one of their own. The damage wrought by the cops’ monumental mistake threw a community into unrest.
In Sanford, similarly, there was the impulse to let a homicide — a homicide! — go unquestioned. Instead of trusting the system they were sworn to protect, the police there acted as judge and jury on an event that was, if nothing else, fraught with justiciable questions. A human being was killed, for God’s sake.
Likewise, The New York Times has now caught the Tallahassee police in what appears to be a bad habit: turning a blind eye to criminal acts when Florida State football players are involved.
The national headline: “At Florida State, Football Clouds Justice.” The front-page expose took two full inside pages to detail the theft, property damage, domestic violence and general criminal foolishness allegedly committed by 13 Seminole football players.
One player was let go by an officer who reportedly caught him driving a stolen motor scooter. In his written report, the officer ended up praising the young athlete for staying to answer his questions.
The cops didn’t stop there. They went so far as to press the memory of the scooter’s owner, who had reported it stolen: Was he certain he didn’t lend it out? Was he sure he was mentally stable?
Officers in Tallahassee have also responded to at least four calls involving the discharge of BB guns — the projectiles of which have dented cars, shattered windows and stung bystanders. The property damage ranks in the thousands of dollars, but the police and State Attorney’s Office apparently buried the incidents until the Times started asking questions.
The State Attorney’s Office took another look once the Times started poking around, cherry-picking the charges to ensure that the football players faced misdemeanors, not felonies. After all, they wouldn’t want to bring the heat against members of one of Tallahassee’s biggest economic engines, would they? Especially when the police get such nice extra-duty jobs during football season. Never mind who might get hurt.
And then there’s star quarterback Jameis Winston. The Heisman trophy winner has apologized for helping himself to crab legs that belonged to Publix. The lame Twitter humor — “That’s so shellfish!” — distracted us momentarily from the rape accusations against him. Winston was never charged, but questions about the botched police investigation remain.
In April, nearly a year after the alleged rape was reported to police, Tallahassee prosecutor William Meggs told the Times that there wasn’t enough evidence to bring charges against Winston, perhaps because the police didn’t do basic police work: “They just missed all the basic fundamental stuff that you are supposed to do.”
The manner in which the TPD conducted — or rather, failed to conduct — an investigation indicates that the officers were less interested in finding out what happened than protecting the accused FSU quarterback. “In fact,” wrote reporter Walt Bogdanich (who also spearheaded the Times/Frontline investigation into Michelle O’Connell’s 2010 death in St. Augustine), “an examination by The New York Times has found that there was virtually no investigation at all, either by the police or the university.”
Lest anyone think that the Times piece was a liberal anti-cop hit job, consider the headline of a more recent Fox Sports investigation: “Documents: Police, FSU Hampered Jameis Winston Investigation.”
The upshot is that Tallahassee cops routed case documents through the university athletic director’s office, and then to Winston’s defense counsel, before prosecutors had a chance to pursue evidence.
The police didn’t do Winston any favors here. Instead, they robbed him of the opportunity to declare and maintain his innocence from the outset, and created an atmosphere of coverup and intrigue. Transparency, you see, protects the accused as well as the accusers.
The American public has had its fill of the milky opacity served up by parochial police departments like those in Ferguson, Sanford and now, Tallahassee. The TPD will have only itself to blame if Florida State actually wins another national championship this season, one that is certain to be tainted by this slew of unprosecuted acts.
The front-page scandal reminds me of Peter Pan and his lost boys in Neverland — and I don’t mean the football players. They’ll grow up to play in the NFL, where they’ll have the opportunity to star in a whole new level of scandalous headlines.
No, I’m talking about the lost boys in blue. The ones who call themselves cops.