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Contempt of Cop

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"I was afraid of being injured by her," said fired King County sheriff's Deputy Paul Schene during testimony Tuesday. Schene's on trial for misdemeanor assault.

The proximate cause of his fear? Malika Calhoun, the 15-year-old girl Schene kicked, manhandled and punched before lifting her by the hair in a secure holding cell on November 29, 2008. Any cop watching the tape of the incident knows the teen posed no bona fide threat to the 6 feet 2 inch, 210-pound former Army Ranger.

Did the girl commit a crime by flicking off her sneaker (Schene had ordered her to remove her shoes), which glanced harmlessly off the deputy's shin? Probably not--she claims, convincingly, that she wasn't aiming the shoe at Schene. But she was guilty of "contempt of cop."

Contempt of cop is a statute you'll not find in any state's penal code but which accounts for a substantial number of skinny or false arrests charging other, more justifiable-sounding violations: disturbing the peace, assault and battery, resisting or obstructing a police officer.

For some law enforcers, police work is not merely what they do, it is who they are. They've come to embody, literally, the vital but limited authority they've been granted in law. Any attack, verbal or physical, becomes an assault not only against the uniform but against the corporeal and psychological identity of the person who wears it.

In closing arguments yesterday, Schene's attorney, Peter Offenbecher, described his client's actions as a "textbook example" of how to take someone into custody. He said Schene acted like a "true professional," conveniently leaving out the part about the grownup and the kid trading escalating insults before the lawman deposited Calhoun in the cell.

Textbook example? True professional? False on both counts, of course. Yet, if I were Schene's attorney I'd do everything I could to cast the deputy in the most positive light, to work hard for his acquittal. But I'm not the man's lawyer, and since what we see in that tape shows zero justifiable provocation for Schene's actions, it's galling to listen to what Offenbecher had to say next.

He asked the jury to let other would-be sneaker-flingers know that it's "not open season on police officers in King County."

His comment appears to have been a thinly veiled reference to the tragic slayings of six Western Washington police officers since October 31. The remark was over the top. If Schene walks because a jury, understandably appalled and heartbroken over the deaths of all those police officers, equates a teenage girl, half the size of Schene, and her flippantly flipped sneaker, with three bloodthirsty, pistol packing cop killers, we all lose.

Nothing justifies an unprovoked attack, lethal or otherwise on a police officer. Nothing.

But when cops behave the way Schene did, when they take such deep personal offense at the slightest slight they invite disrespect, from allies as well as critics--including enraged or otherwise unhinged individuals whose mission is to avenge real or perceived injustices at the hands of local police.

Police work is demanding, dangerous and delicate. As the deputy prosecutor, Gary Ernsdorff told the jury, "There is a reason we have adults" serving as police officers.