Law enforcement likes “wanted” posters, even in entirely inappropriate circumstances.
I first recognized this a quarter-century ago when I worked as a summer intern for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. The DA’s Office had just announced, with great fanfare, a “gotcha poster” program. The concept was this: the public relations department of the DA’s office would produce posters with the pictures of recently convicted miscreants (usually gang members), complete with bold-font description of their crimes of conviction and sentences, capped with stern exhortations to avoid committing crimes. Then someone — presumably someone armed — would put these posters up in gang neighborhoods. Someone in the DA’s Office believed that this would deter crime. Don’t blame me for that, I was just an intern. I was briefly assigned to draft language for the posters. That responsibility was unceremoniously taken away as a consequence of a fairly disastrous practical joke, in which I left a message for another intern saying that a poster she had created stated that John Doe had been convicted of Penal Code Section 187, murder, when in fact he had only been convicted of City Code Section 187, excessive noise from a lawn mower, and John Doe was suing, and the District attorney wanted to talk to her. She reacted . . . badly. [She was quite attractive. Of course I was interested in her. Behold my interpersonal prowess!]
But law enforcement posters are not all about bragging rights or harebrained deterrence theories or even about informing the public of wanted fugitives. Sometimes, like any law enforcement communication, they offer a window into cops’ attitudes towards the citizens they police.
Take the story of Matthew Swaye and Christina Gonzalez.
Swaye and Gonzalez are concerned about policing in Harlem, where they live. They are particularly concerned about the NYPD’s aggressive stop-and-frisk program, the questing fingers of which are disproportionately felt by New York’s young men of color, and which Radley has frequently discussed here. They take videos of police stopping and frisking their neighbors, and post the videos on a YouTube channel.
How do you suppose that goes over with the cops?
Swaye and Gonzalez learned the answer when they discovered that officers of the 30th Precinct had created a wanted-style poster of them and posted it outside of a public hearing room at the precinct house.
The flyer featured side-by-side mugshots of Matthew Swaye, 35, and his partner Christina Gonzalez, 25, and warned officers to be on guard against them. It was spotted by multiple people, including the couple, when it was taped to a podium outside a public hearing room in the 30th Precinct house last Thursday, where residents met for precinct council meeting.
“Be aware that above subjects are known professional agitators,” read the flyer, which bears the NYPD shield and a seal of the NYPD’s Intelligence Division. It also gave the home address of the couple.
“Above subjects MO is that they video tape officers performing routine stops and post on YouTube,” the sign said. “Subjects purpose is to portray officers in a negative way and too deter officers from conducting there [sic] responsibilities.”
The flyer also listed the name and cellphone number of a Sgt. Nicholson in the 30th Precinct, and implored cops to “not feed into above subjects propaganda.”
The couple took a video of the poster; you can see it here.
I think Jacob Sullum is right in his post about this incident when he writes that the poster can be taken in two ways: the style and publication of the couples’ home address suggests intimidation, while some of the language suggests a warning to police to leave them alone rather than approach them in a manner that will look bad on video. But whatever the intended message, the unintended message about law enforcement’s entitled attitudes is clear. First, in the face of steadily advancing legal norms protecting citizens’ rights to record cops in the course of their duties, cops continue to do everything they can to portray such recording as dangerous, intrusive, inappropriate, and a signifier of bad citizenship. Second, cops view concern about constitutional rights as a signifier of bad intent and suspect behavior. Only an agitator would want to document, and challenge, the widespread temporary detention of young men of color in New York City.
Swaye and Gonzalez seem proud to be “agitators.” Clearly our gracious host is proud. I’m proud.
Hat tip to my high school classmate Joe, who sent me the story, and to Jacob Sullum, who beat me to writing about it.