My 'Crime' on U Street? Offending the Police

By Pepin Andrew Tuma
Sunday, August 9, 2009

Last month, I was arrested for criticizing the police and threatened for being gay. It happened not in China or Iran but right here in Northwest Washington.

The ensuing media attention has been disorienting and unsettling. Friends have counseled me to stay silent, fearing I will face retaliation. But my conscience requires me to speak out. Most victims of unconstitutional arrests are not lawyers (as I am) or respected Harvard professors (as Henry Louis Gates is). Their arrests don't attract our attention. They should.

The facts of my experience are shocking enough. I was walking with two friends, and we were -- ironically -- discussing the Gates arrest. We noted how so-called "disorderly conduct" arrests operate as a troubling pretext to arrest anyone police officers feel like arresting.

As if on cue, we walked past five or six Metropolitan Police Department cars engaged in what appeared to be a simple traffic stop.

Excessive law enforcement -- whether toward Gates or a citizen on U Street -- is one reason I am sometimes wary of police motives. I regret I took my conversation with my friends too far when I chanted, "I hate the police, I hate the police," loud enough for the officers to hear. In retrospect, this was neither respectful nor smart. But I never could have imagined the reaction it triggered.

One officer, who has been identified as James Culp, charged across the street, yelling, "Who do you think you are?" and "Who do you think you're talking to?" Within moments, he had shoved me against an electric utility box, handcuffed me and placed me under arrest, later charging me with disorderly conduct.

Then, as he led me to a cruiser, out of earshot of my friends, he added contemptuously: "Just shut up, faggot."

I am in fact a gay man. And because I have been involved in civil rights work, I know my rights, and I calmly asserted them. I asked why I was being detained. I explained that, as a lawyer, I knew it was not a crime to offer a public opinion about the police. But the troubling police conduct did not end there. Other officers have acted to bolster Culp's fabricated version of the incident. One of his superiors attempted to induce witnesses to attest that I resisted arrest when I had not. Another superior falsely wrote to Internal Affairs that I confirmed that Culp had advised me to move along before arresting me; he did not. It appears that officers simply lied over and over to cover up an unconstitutional arrest.

It is certainly Kafkaesque to be wrongfully arrested for disorderly conduct while discussing that very subject. Gates's arrest has touched off a debate about police misuse of disorderly conduct charges, an abuse that is particularly acute here. The city has a longstanding problem with police abuse of "disorderly conduct" arrests, and it knows it. A 2003 report concluded that the District's disorderly conduct arrest rate was two to four times the rate nationwide. In 2000 alone, D.C. police made 10,600 disorderly conduct arrests -- more than one in every five arrests made and nearly twice the number in the next largest category.

My behavior was juvenile, but nothing I did was illegal. I never cursed; no crowd of bystanders formed; I was not drunk. Because I am innocent, and importantly -- because I understand the legal system and can defend myself -- I am confident my name will be cleared and the charges dismissed.

But that's not really the point. The police, with the awesome power of the state behind them, have a duty not to overreact to people like me who act imprudently, even rudely, but are not breaking any law. Yet, that overreaction seems to occur in the District far too often.

I appreciate both Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier's quick decision to have the incident investigated and the work of the vast majority of city police officers who are committed to "protect and serve." But difficult questions persist: What if I weren't a white, gay, prosperous attorney? Would the media care about this? How many unjustified arrests go unwitnessed and unreported every week?

We needed to have this conversation about police culture long before Gates's arrest. We must agree to stop the routine, arbitrary misuse of police discretion and the invidious tendency among some officers to protect their own. From this conversation must come real legal and cultural change. With these issues at the heart of our constitutional freedom, it is a problem we cannot afford to ignore.

Editor's note: In response to a call from The Post, a police spokeswoman said that Pepin Tuma's complaint is being investigated and that she was unable to comment further.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company