Should America Have a Public Child-Abuse Registry?

Erica Hammel’s two-year-old child Wyatt was shaken so badly that he got brain damage.

Her ex-husband’s then girlfriend allegedly did the awful deed a year ago, leaving the kid temporarily blinded and unable to speak. The accused, Rachel Edwards, had two previous child abuse charges, but had only gotten probation. Now Hammel wants to prevent anyone else from experiencing this horror by establishing a public database for child abusers.

Michigan, where Hammel lives, actually already has a child abuse database that contains about 275,000 names, but it’s only accessible to law enforcement and child protective services. Hammel wants to make that database public, like sex offender registries. But tempting as shaming child abusers might be, expanding the reach of law enforcement is always a dangerous game.

All 50 states have some version of a sex offender registry, and they’re rife with problems. There are three quarters of a million people listed across the country, and the “sex offender” label is extremely broad—some may be dangerous pedophiles, while others might just have taken a leak outside. And Michigan’s child abuse database has flaws of its own. For one thing, while sex offender registries are based on convictions, the Michigan database lists people merely suspected of child abuse or neglect.

Then there’s question of whether or not public shame is a fair part of punishment. Are we going to restrict child abusers in the way sex offenders are often barred from living near schools or other places? This modern reincarnation of the colonial stocks in the town square may be satisfying to victims’ families and worried parents, but that fleeting comfort is not the same thing as justice.

After all, drug addiction—most of us can agree—is a terrible thing. But overblown fears about it gave us the war on drugs. We should be cautious of new punishment regimes, even when they’re designed to persecute something as heinous as child abuse.

Now for this week’s bad cops:

-In April, four St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department officers pulled over a driver, beat him when he refused to leave the car, and then turned off their dashcam. Video of the incident was released Monday by lawyers for the victim, Cortez Bufford. He supposedly made an illegal U-turn and had marijuana on him. He also had a handgun, which one of the cops apparently spotted during the encounter. Bufford was dragged out, Tasered multiple times, and had his head stepped on by Officer Monroe Jenkins.

The gun was stolen and loaded, and also had a bullet in the chamber. But the felony weapons charge and the misdemeanor resisting arrest charge were both dropped because, several minutes into the confrontation, SLMPD officer Kelli Swinton reminded her fellow officers just before the dashcam was turned off that they were still rolling—they were “red right now.” The mayor of St. Louis asked that this footage not be released for months so as not to add fuel to the post–Michael Brown flames. Bufford is suing for the cost of his medical bills, and he says cops hit him again after the camera was turned off.

One easy fix to prevent this sort of thing from happening again is not to give police officers the power to turn off their cameras. The one who actually did the deed is supposedly going to be disciplined, but of course is appealing. They should be fired, period. And whether or not she did anything awful to Bufford, Swinton should be fired just suggesting that cops “wait” to finish their beating of a suspect until after the camera was turned off. There can be no second chances for that kind of underhanded behavior in law enforcement.

-A 37-year-old woman who suffered from schizophrenia died while being repaired for transfer from a Fairfax County, Virginia, jail earlier in the month, and her family is trying to figure out why. Natasha McKenna had been jailed for assault on a law enforcement officer. She reportedly fought back—all 130 pounds of her—when guards tried to move her on February 3. Sheriff’s deputies stunned her as many as five times, and gave her two black eyes, an arm injury, and a finger injury that was so bad the digit had to be amputated. The exact cause of her death remains to be seen.

-Police in Pasco, Washington, fatally shot a 35-year-old homeless man on Tuesday after he allegedly threw rocks at police. The police chief said the rocks were sizable, and that the deceased—Antonio Zambrano-Montes—had been throwing them at cars. But apparent video of the confrontation doesn’t show him actually hitting the cops, even if he kept throwing the rocks and refused to listen to their commands. A Taser reportedly failed to work, so cops allegedly shot Zambrano-Montes as he was running away. Rocks can absolutely hurt people, and cops were right to take a look at the situation to make sure nobody was being attacked. But what, exactly, is the purpose of body armor, Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs), and helmets for law enforcement if rocks can justify lethal force?

-Arizona State Senator Sylvia Allen has introduced Senate Bill 1435, a heinously backwards proposal that would make local government less transparent and accessible to the public. It seems that the state’s Open Meetings law is preventing public officials from having a good chat without nosy citizens demanding to be let in on the action, so SB1435 would ensure that more such meetings are closed to the pbulic. The legislation would also, in most cases, conceal the names of police officers involved in deadly force incidents for up to 90 days. In a state that houses renegade cops like Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, this is an especially terrible plan.

-On February 6, Madison, Alabama police stopped 57-year-old Sureshbhai Patel, who was on a walk around the neighborhood. Patel had apparently done something to warrant a neighbor—who described him as an unfamiliar “skinny black guy”—calling police. Unfortunately, Patel speaks no English, and was in the area to help take care of his sickly grandson. Officer Eric Parker seemingly became frustrated with Patel’s inability to answer questions, and his attempts to walk away, so Parker threw him down onto the sidewalk. The result? Patel is partially paralyzed from a neck injury, and his family has filed a lawsuit.

As bad as this appears to be, it could be worse in terms of accountability. Parker has already turned himself in for third-degree assault charges, and his boss is not standing by his use of force. It looks like Parker might even be fired, but we’ll see if criminal charges actually follow.

-Another guy who should probably get fired: New Mexico Principal Robert Archuleta, who suspended an eighth grader for ten days after he threw an American flag out the window. That wasn’t enough, however—Archuleta felt it prudent to dial the school resource officer, who directed the principal to his local FBI field office. Burning the flag is, of course, legal, but people have still been punished by law enforcement in recent years for demonstrating insufficient respect for the rectangle of cloth. Regardless, Archuleta is teaching his kids a really killer lesson about excessive, irrational authority and nationalism.

-A Georgia woman has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that an Albany, Georgia police officer attacked her—causing a miscarriage—because he didn’t like her tone. Kenya Harris’s suit alleges that in 2011, after five hours of waiting to pick up her son at the police station, she tried to explain to officers that she had other children to tend to, and thus needed to speed things up a bit. Officer Ryan Jenkens told her to be quiet, and when she tried to explain again, he allegedly grabbed her by the neck and threw her to the floor. She says she passed out, and later miscarried from the experience. Police also cuffed and interrogated her, and declined to take her to the hospital. Harris is asking for $50,000. If her story is true, she deserves a whole lot more than that.

-This week’s Good Cop award comes with a laundry list of civil liberty caveats. However, FBI Director James Comey should be praised for the speech he gave last week to Georgetown Law School, where he said, “At many points in American history, law enforcement enforced the status quo, a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disfavored groups.” Comey conceded that people of color often get the shaft in this country, and cops need to do better. He also expressed support for better FBI record-keeping of police shootings across the US. This bodes well. Even the most mainstream and powerful of federal law enforcement officials know that reform is in the air. Admitting that there’s a problem in American policing isn’t nearly as controversial as it once was.