A handful of New York lawmakers want to make it a felony to dump a bucket of water on a police officer.
The quixotic legislative push is the result of a mounting, week-long fearmongering campaign from conservative media figures eager to highlight viral videos of people in New York City tossing water on cops.
“This time, it’s water. But what’s next? Gasoline? Acid?” said Assemblyman Mike LiPetri (R) at a press conference Wednesday.
Throwing acid, gas, or other harmful substances on anyone is already a crime. Aiming such an assault at a police officer is already a special category of crime carrying additional punishment. The NYPD has already made arrests in the “water attacks” and pushed additional resources into pursuing others seen in the videos.
But the redundant nature of LiPetri’s new law is no obstacle to its political utility for conservatives. The political right is eager to tamp down the bevy of evidence that police around the country abuse their authority over citizens on a routine basis.
And so it was no surprise that Fox News leapt to LiPetri’s aid on Thursday morning, inviting on his State Assembly ally Mike Reilly (R) and Ed Mullins of the Sergeants Benevolent Association (SBA) police union to tout the bill and dismiss the idea that cops might have earned some public disdain through their actions.
After host Bill Hemmer told the pair he’d have been arrested if he’d thrown water on a cop during his childhood in Ohio, he invited them to explain why this is happening in New York. The two immediately blamed city leaders and mass criticism of NYPD violence.
“Well you don’t have Mayor di Blasio in Ohio, you don’t have Police Commissioner O’Neil in Ohio,” the SBA’s Mullins said. “You don’t have the Pantaleo effect that has now crippled the NYPD.”
Hemmer interjected that “Pantaleo’s the officer who was connected to the Eric Garner.”
Indeed, that “connection” is that Pantaleo killed Eric Garner, according to the medical examiner who testified at the former man’s administrative trial earlier this year. The “Pantaleo effect” could thus be remedied by police taking the necessary steps to not needlessly kill people. This fix would likely have the concomitant effect of ameliorating much of this “buckets of water tossed on police” problem.
This logic proved elusive for Reilly, who later in the segment reiterated the notion that the “Pantaleo effect” is causing police to become “hesitant,” thus reducing overall safety for both officers and community members.
It’s worth unpacking the twinned aspects of soft-power rhetoric and hard-power legislative ideation here.
Creating a new felony specifically for throwing or squirting water at or on a police officer would not just be redundant to existing assault laws currently being used to go after the people in the videos. In another sense, the proposed law is an attempt to de-criminalize one of the most common abuses of authority in all of policing.
People are already being arrested at high rates for simply being impolite to police officers. This unconstitutional, illegal practice is so common that it has its own name in law enforcement jargon. “Contempt of cop” is not a crime you’ll find in any law book. But in practice, on the street, cops will find a reason to put the hooks on you for being rude or uncooperative.
These illegal arrests and harassment are hard to curb even when an appointed or elected official has the will to try. They are ghosts in the law enforcement machine, disguised in the official bookings record as “resisting arrest” or “assaulting an officer.”
But officers who know they’re being watched and recorded are less likely to press ahead with illegal “contempt of cop” arrests. Cell phone cameras change police behavior, to be sure – just not in the way that law enforcement hardliners like LiPetri, Reilly, and Hemmer would have you believe.
In the five years since Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in the St. Louis exurbs, law enforcement officials have worked hard to persuade the public that the resulting scrutiny of police practices is doing more harm than good. Often, they refer to a supposed “Ferguson effect,” alluding to Wilson’s killing of Brown. The language shifts sometimes – former FBI Director Jim Comey called it the “viral video effect” in 2015, for example. Today’s “Pantaleo effect” remarks on Fox are just a fresh coat of paint on this same concept.
The idea is that police retreat from their duties in the face of public scrutiny and distrust. There is likely some truth to that claim, in a vacuum. It certainly makes intuitive sense that as armed agents of the state lose legitimacy with the communities they occupy while on duty, it becomes harder for them to effectively solve crimes.
But agents of the law enforcement backlash go further than noting a mere correlation. They insist it is the public’s fault that their police force is becoming ineffective – entirely ignoring the question of whether police have lost public trust through their own actions. This rhetorical dodge reached its apotheosis under former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who openly accused black civil rights activists of causing murders and shootings through their critiques of police violence, corruption, and abuse of office.
LiPetri offered his own version of the same opposite-day logic at Wednesday’s presser.
“What will it take for radical left-wing politicians to abandon their hostile, anti-police rhetoric toward law enforcement?” he said. “This detestable anti-police narrative has created a divisive climate, an us-versus-them mentality.”
Catch that? The breakdown in relations between police and citizens is not caused by killer cops like Pantaleo, Jeronimo Yanez, Johannes Mehserle, Jason Van Dyke, and Michael Oliver. It’s not caused by the thousands of other officers whose names we don’t know who engage in “contempt of cop” arrests and other illegal and humiliating practices. It’s caused by the people who refuse to accept those abuses quietly, who demand some accountability for officers who violate people’s rights.
Everyone involved in these conversations knows that it’s already a crime to actually assault an officer. Everyone involved in these conversations knows that police officers abusing their authority rapidly destroy community trust. Everyone involved in these conversations knows that “contempt of cop” is already unofficially criminal. What’s needed is a conversation about how police officers might change their thinking and behavior to better serve a rightfully suspicious public.
But Fox News has tremendous power over the U.S. populace. Citizens who rely on Fox for their news believe they live in an entirely different country and reality to the one everyone else sees. The channel’s Rasputin-like hold on its tens of millions of viewers allows it to advance the sophisticated political project it was conceived and launched to pursue. When Fox picks up an idea and flogs it relentlessly, it can impose the liturgy of its lunatic fringe on the rest of the world.
That’s what this segment is about. The lawmakers and police union officials behind this unnecessary and absurd proposed criminal statute know they have little chance of winning a fair fight in Albany. But they also understand that getting the vast Fox News horde to howl in support of their bad idea might level the odds a bit.
And even if they don’t ultimately pass this redundant, retrograde criminal penalty into law, they will have pushed the underlying ideological campaign forward.