An Arkansas police officer sparked a federal lawsuit and national news coverage when he arrested a man for acting suspiciously at a railroad yard -- and the man worked for the railroad company. That sounds like a joke, but it's only the beginning of the craziness at the heart of a case styled Adam Finley v. City of Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, et al.
In fact, the case has plenty of ugliness to go with the craziness. When Finley and his wife, Heather, visited the Walnut Ridge Police Department to file a complaint against Officer Matthew Mercado, Chief Chris Kirksey said Finley was lucky not to be in jail, and the chief and a sergeant wound up writing a citation that charges Finley with two crimes -- obstruction of governmental operations and resisting arrest. This came even after Chief Kirksey had seen body-cam video that proves Finley did not obstruct or resist anything. (Video of the encounter with Officer Mercado is at the top of this post; Video of the meeting with Kirksey and Sgt. Matthew Cook, in two parts, is at the end of this post. Note: In the video above, Officer Mercado apparently did not turn on audio to his body cam, so the video is silent for about 30 seconds at the beginning.)
Bottom line: If you are the victim of police misconduct in Walnut Ridge, AR, and you have the audacity to report it, you can wind up facing criminal charges you clearly did not commit, per a dash-cam video. This, of course, sounds a lot like the experience my wife, Carol, and I have had in Springfield, Missouri, where Greene County deputies broke her arm -- requiring trauma surgery and about six months of physical therapy -- during an unlawful eviction in September 2015, and then hit her with an "assault of a law enforcement officer" charge, even though the "victim" officer (Jeremy Lynn) admitted in a written report and under oath at trial that he initiated contact with Carol, meaning she was not guilty, as a matter of Missouri law.
In Carol's case, officers repeatedly lied under oath, and Judge Jerry A. Harmison Jr. violated black-letter law in order to find Carol guilty in a bench trial, where there was not even probable cause to arrest, much less to prosecute.
Compared to Carol, Adam Finley got off easy. He did not have any broken bones, and the criminal charges against him ultimately were dropped. There already has been some semblance of accountability for the Walnut Ridge Police Department; there has been zero accountability, so far, against the Greene County Sheriff's Office (GCSO) and its head thug, Jim Arnott, and crooked prosecutor, Dan Patterson.
The police abuse of Adam Finley is relatively tame compared to what happens in some cases, where victims wind up with broken bones, or even dead. For one, Finley (like Carol) is white, so it shows police abuse is not just directed at black people. We have no doubt police disproportionately target black folks, and there is good reason the Black Lives Matter movement grew out of the Michael Brown incident in Ferguson, Missouri. But the Finley case is not about race; it's more about mind-numbing stupidity on the part of an officer, and the corruptness of his superiors -- all of it conducted while cameras were rolling.
Stan Morris, of NEA (Northeast Arkansas) Report, has led news coverage of the Finley story at a local level. Radley Balko, of The Washington Post, picked up on the Finley case earlier this week and noted, right off, the goofiness of it all. We invite you to watch the body-cam footage above, and Finley promptly turns over his ID as a railroad-company employee. (Note: Again, Officer Mercado apparently did not immediately turn on audio to his body cam, so the video is silent for about the first 30 seconds.) In other words, Finley was not "acting suspiciously" at all; he was on the job and had work-related reasons to be at the railroad yard. But Officer Mercado apparently can't grasp that and slams Finley up against his own truck, cursing him, slapping handcuffs on him, and then ultimately letting him go. But Finley winds up facing criminal charges after filing a complaint, and (unlike Carol) he is acquitted. From Balko:
Mercado didn’t turn on the audio for his camera until about 30 seconds into the stop. During that time, the video shows Finley handing Mercado both his license and his employee ID from the railroad company. Mercado then asks Finley to get out of his truck. It’s here that Mercado then turns on his mic. He asks Finley, “What’s with the attitude?” Finley, who appears to have done nothing to indicate an “attitude,” replies, “Nothing.”
Mercado persists. “No, you have an attitude. What’s your problem?” Finley responds, “I don’t have no problem, I’m good.” Mercado again pushes. “I can pull you over if I want.” Finley says, “That’s fine.”
This is obstructing governmental operations? Does an alternate universe exist in Walnut Ridge, AR, especially in law enforcement. Here is more from Balko:
Later Mercado again expresses doubt about Finley’s employment — again, despite having Finley’s employee ID in his own hands. “It doesn’t look like you were working,” he says. As he says this, Finley takes a small step away from the truck. Mercado snaps, “If you get up on me again, we’re going to have problems.” Finley, clearly taken aback at the escalation, flashes a nervous smile. Mercado again ratchets up the tension. “I’m glad you think all of this is a joke, sir.” Finley shakes his head and again tells Mercado that he works for the railroad. Mercado again indicates that he doesn’t believe him.
Mercado then orders Finley to put his hands behind his back, and says he’s going to arrest him for “obstructing my operation.” Finley, clearly nervous, protests and tries to prove to Mercado that he works for the railroad by showing him some equipment in the back of his truck. At this point the stop turns violent. Mercado grabs Finley and throws him against the truck. Finley puts his hands behind his back. Mercado cuffs him and says, “You’re about ignorant.” He then again shoves Finley into the truck, this time with enough force to dislodge his own body camera, which falls to the ground.
Over the course of the next several minutes, Mercado repeatedly uses profanity, lectures to Finley as if he were a child and claims that Finley is “hostile and aggressive.” Throughout all of this, Finley is remarkably calm, insisting over and over that he works for the railroad, and that he doesn’t understand why he was pulled over.
After pointing out multiple falsehoods in Mercado's incident report, Balko strives to put the whole contretemps in perspective:
It’s tempting to blow all this off as a single, insignificant incident in a small town. It isn’t Los Angeles’s Rampart, after all. Or Chicago’s systemized torture. But it also isn’t unique. There’s a steady stream of stories like this one. I was alerted to this particular story by a former police officer who now advocates criminal-justice reform. (He asked me not to use his name, for reasons that will be apparent in a moment.) I asked him: In his experience, how common is this sort of thing? His response:
"This is very common in policing. Looking back on my career, I realize just how often I acted similarly and didn’t even realize it. It was subconscious. I was trained and subtly incentivized to do so. You intentionally create conflict and manufacture noncompliance in order to build your stop into an arrest situation. Because that’s what generations of law enforcers who have been steeped in a fear-based, comply or else, us-vs.-them mind-set do. They arrest people. Arrests are a primary measure of productivity and gives the appearance your department has solved a problem.
"Most aggressive cops have honed this to an art. They are savvy, know exactly how to weaponize numerous petty laws, ordinances, use-of-force policy and procedure against citizens. This cop was off his game and clumsily went through the motions like a desperate door-to-door perfume salesman. Except when cops manufacture a “sale” like this, the “customer” ends up arrested, criminalized, emotionally and financially devastated, not to mention possibly physically beaten or worse. And the justice system will deem it legal, even when it isn’t.
"As far as the police leadership and prosecutors, they knew exactly what they were doing. If someone makes a complaint, you find something, anything to charge them with."
So, the thinking demonstrated by Officer Mercado and his chief is common in policing. And that should concern all Americans, of all colors and persuasions. Writes Balko:
Finley wasn’t shot, or choked to death, or found hanging in a jail cell. He didn’t suffer any permanent or lasting physical injury. Mercado didn’t even use racist or bigoted language. But Finley did everything he was supposed to. From the footage we can see and hear, he was polite, provided ID when it was asked of him and stepped out of the truck when ordered. Despite cooperating, he was treated poorly, detained and roughed up. When he then tried to file a complaint, he was harassed, and the chief of police attempted to turn his own wife against him — by citing video she hadn’t seen and that ultimately vindicated her husband. Yet even after viewing that video, city officials proceeded to prosecute. And even after the video was released, city officials maligned Finley in the press and insisted that the residents of Walnut Ridge believe the assertions of authority figures over the video evidence that contradicted them.
The “lesson” Finley learned here is pretty clear. Power usually wins. You can be as cooperative as possible, but if a police officer wants to dish out some abuse, he can. And he’ll probably get away with it. Try to hold him accountable if you’d like, but just know that doing so may come with a heavy price.
Once other public officials cover up for “bad apple” cops, the story is no longer about the bad apples. It’s about systemic failure. It’s about public servants willing to tolerate abuse because they’re more loyal to one another than to the public they serve. It’s difficult to say how someone in a position of authority — someone with the public trust — could view footage of the encounter between Mercado and Finley and proclaim they believe that the criminal charges against Finley were merited. Perhaps they were just lying. Or perhaps they were so blinded by deference to law enforcement, a fear of accountability or a knee-jerk defense of authority that they actually believe what they’re saying. I’m not sure which of those scenarios ought to worry us more.