Conor Friedersdorf is a California-based staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.
A cop taunts, intimidates, and disrespects an immigrant Uber driver—and is caught and punished because a passenger captured it all on video.
Years ago, if someone told you a story about an NYPD officer lambasting a taxi driver, it was easy to imagine that the encounter wasn't actually all that egregious. Sure, maybe the cop overreacted, but you weren't there, so who knows what really happened? The person telling you the story could be exaggerating. And maybe in your experience cops don't verbally berate people for nothing. If you're not poor, or an immigrant, or a member of a minority group, you may go your whole life without witnessing an abusive police officer.
But these days, New York City is filled with recording devices. And they give everyone a window into the verbal abuse and intimidation that some police dish out to those they perceive as powerless. In the latest example, the victim is an Uber driver. One of his passengers, Sanjay Seth, had the presence of mind to pull out a cell phone and record the interaction. And then he posted a stellar example of citizen journalism to YouTube.
Here's the video he shot, followed by the explanation:
In an unmarked car, the policeman was allegedly attempting to park without using his blinker at a green light. (His reverse lights weren't on. Likely double parked without hazards on.) The Uber driver pulled around and gestured that he should use his blinker, casually and non-offensively, and kept driving us. The policeman quickly pulls up behind us and this is what happens. This occurred just before 2pm on the West side of Manhattan, in NYPD 6th Precinct, on March 30th, 2015, near Little West 12th Street. The officer did not identify himself, but he had a New York license plate: GSS 8891. The officer was later identified as Detective Patrick Cherry, at the time a member of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force.
The police officer hasn't shared his version of what transpired before the video started rolling, but the passengers in the car were impartial observers, and they seemed sure he was at fault.
NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton deserves kudos for reacting promptly and appropriately to the video.
The New York Post reports:
The NYPD detective who was caught on video chewing out an Uber driver has been stripped of his shield and gun, and will be placed on modified duty, Police officials said. Detective Patrick Cherry has been removed from the department’s elite Joint Terrorism Task Force and will be doing desk duty until he is officially transferred out of the prestigious division. “No good cop should watch that video without a wince,” Commissioner Bill Bratton said at a Wednesday press conference. “Because all good cops know that officer just made their jobs a little bit harder.”
“In that kind of encounter, anger like that is unacceptable,” Bratton continued. “In any encounter, discourtesy and obscene language like that is unacceptable. “That officer’s behavior reflected poorly on everyone who wears our uniform.”
Michael J. Palladino, the President of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, made this statement:
I am not trying to minimize the significance of what occurred. I am simply pointing out that cops are just like everyone else. They have families, friends, and other things going on in their lives, too, that may affect their behavior at times. There is no disputing that we are held to a higher standard and that is why this incident is so newsworthy. Detective Cherry is a person of good character and an excellent Detective. He really should not be judged by one isolated incident.
It is possible that Detective Cherry is a person of good character and an excellent detective who behaved anomalously in this situation. But there are significant flaws in that defense of him. All of us certainly have families, friends, and bad days. And all of us do things we shouldn't sometimes. But even on our worst days, very few of have confronted, detained, or abused a fellow motorist who angered us in traffic, or lambasted an immigrant for minutes on end over his driving, because most of us possess neither the power nor the sense of entitlement necessary to act that way.
And it is false that police officers are "held to a higher standard."
This incident is illustrative. If the Uber driver had been recorded on a cell phone video going up to the window of a car that honked at him in traffic, smacking the door, and verbally abusing and intimidating another driver, he would obviously be fired. There's just no question. Having an average rating of three out of five stars from fares is enough to get an Uber driver removed from the job!
I wouldn't necessarily fire a police officer over a single incident like this one, depending on his work history, but make no mistake that the cop will be held to a lower standard here.
As the blog Photography Is Not A Crime put it, "displaying unprofessionalism is not a fireable offense as it would be in most any other job dealing with the public." Under union rules, after the police officer is afforded multiple layers of due process, the maximum penalty he'll face is a 30 day suspension. So no, Mr. Palladino, policemen aren't "just like everyone else."
The lower standard to which they're held and the extraordinary job protection they enjoy is such that they can even pepper-spray innocent protestors on video and not get fired.
In coming days, we're likely to find out if the sources who spoke to DNAInfo are correct that Detective Cherry has been the subject of multiple prior civilian complaints. If the coming years bring more citizens training cameras on police officers, as well as more police administrators willing to punish misbehavior, the generation of cops that expects that it can verbally abuse New Yorkers with impunity may pass into history.
This story originally appeared on The Atlantic.