If This is How Police Are on the Street, What Do They Do When No One is Watching? | Opinion

On 1 June, police in Washington, D.C. kettled more than a hundred Black Lives Matter protesters into a narrow street and subjected them to beating, gassing, rubber bullets, and arbitrary arrests, with some protestors forced to seek refuge in neighbors' homes.

These scenes, and scenes like them all across America, have been caught on camera and widely reported. We are all too familiar by now with how police forces behave on the streets, from Minneapolis to Buffalo.

But what happens away from the public gaze? If police feel emboldened to engage in wanton brutality on public streets while being filmed, what do they do when no one is watching?

Police detention is understood worldwide to be one of the most perilous places for police torture and ill treatment. That is why international human rights bodies and the laws of many countries emphasize the importance of immediate access to a lawyer for all arrested people, and not just those who can afford the private lawyers they have set up on speed-dial. A lawyer in police custody can document injuries, challenge illegal detention, gather testimony on the use of force, and ensure that arrested people have access to phone calls, food, water, and medical attention. But though we are all familiar with the idea of access to a defense lawyer in detention from TV shows, in jurisdictions around the United States, the reality is that most hold arrested people are held in de facto incommunicado detention. Rights to phone calls and to counsel are often illusory, and with no oversight, neglect and mistreatment of arrested people can flourish.

I spoke to Sebi Medina-Tayac, a DC resident who was walking home from the protests when he was kettled, gassed, then arrested. He told me that he was handcuffed and packed into the back of a hot and crowded truck with 10 other people while they were transported to a makeshift detention center in the parking lot of Blue Plains police training academy, a remote location in southwest D.C. For at least five hours, they were made to stand or crouch on asphalt without access to water, food, or sanitation, before being transferred to cells. At no time before their release the next morning did police read Sebi or his fellow detainees their rights, or offer access to phone calls or lawyers.

These practices are not unique to D.C. There are no cities in the USA that regularly provide access for lawyers in police custody. In New York City, the Legal Aid Society of New York filed suit on behalf of over a hundred arrested people detained illegally in cramped conditions for over days, in violation of New York State law that mandates arrested people be brought before a judge within 24 hours. Some protestors in police custody are reported to have been questioned by the FBI while in police custody. But a Manhattan judge sided with police, allowing indefinite incommunicado detention in light of the "civil unrest crisis within the overarching COVID-19 crisis." In Chicago, where arrested people are supposed to have the right to a lawyer in custody, as part of the Chicago Consent Decree, only 2 percent of people arrested were actually able to speak to an attorney. 80 percent "waived" their right to an attorney, often under intense pressure from police.

This is not just a matter of procedure: access to a lawyer in custody can save lives. Black men are six times more likely to die in custody than white men. Early intervention from a lawyer in the perilous early hours post-arrest can fundamentally shift the power relations between citizens and police.

We're rightly searching for ways to rebalance the immense power held (and abused) by our bloated and oftentimes brutal police to address patterns of violence against black communities. Alongside right-sizing police budgets and getting rid of qualified immunity, we need to redress the terrifying imbalance of power inside our police lockups.

It's grimly ironic that police detention is the point at which it is most important for millions like Sebi who are arrested in the US each year need access to the protection of the law most. Any reform of policing and justice must urgently address the need for citizens to have access to station house lawyers at exactly when they're most vulnerable to abuse and coercion.

Rebecca Shaeffer is the Legal Director of the Americas office of Fair Trials, an international criminal justice and human rights organization.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​