Grant Bloomquist is suing nine Colorado Springs police officers after an incident in 2013 left him with a concussion. Bloomquist’s civil rights lawsuit says that he was the victim of police acting “without a warrant, probable cause or any other legal basis.” In it, Bloomquist recalls that he was thrown to the ground so hard it left him unconscious. How did this happen?
According to Bloomquist, on July 4, 2013, he had come out of a nightclub to witness a group of Colorado Springs officers “brutally beating” a young black man named Brian Greenley. He verbally protested the behavior but what happened next, Bloomquist says, left him utterly shocked. After calling on the cops to ease up on the black man, Bloomquist says he was charged by an officer who “ran up and performed a fist strike” to his face and slammed his head to the ground. After coming to in the back of a police car, Bloomquist claims the officers refused to take him to a hospital, despite his obvious injuries.
Though the officers’ account of the incident, unsurprisingly, tries to tell a different story — that Bloomquist, instead, physically assaulted the police — Bloomquist was cleared of any such charges in a trial by jury. Unfortunately no footage exists of how the situation escalated (only this extremely grainy videoof Bloomquist already on the ground) and eyewitnesses, if any, have not gone public yet; even still it would seem this is a rather straightforward case of police brutality. It is not clear why nine officers were taking down Brian Greenley, but Bloomquist’s treatment was clearly a violation of his civil rights.
As shocking as the interaction between Grant Bloomquist and the Colorado Springs Colorado Department was, the scenario raises some especially important questions. What would you do if you were to come upon a group of police officers acting inappropriately? Is it even legal to verbally object to police behavior in the first place? Unfortunately, the answers are not entirely clear.
Sometimes referred to as “contempt of cop,” police have been known to make arrests based on verbal remarks, generally in the instance of obstructions to their duties. To qualify as such, though, the comments typically need to be construed as an intentionally provocative verbal assault. Because of the nature of these sorts of incidents, defining how and when a citizen’s remarks cross into verbal assault is not cut and dry — indeed, it is often left up to departmental policies (if any exist) or, more commonly, to the officers in a given situation.
However, in United States v. Poocha, the Supreme Court ruled 2-1 that “criticism of the police, profane or otherwise, is not a crime.” In other words, this means that technically a citizen is legally protected if he or she verbally objects to police behavior, even during another’s arrest. In practice, however, as with Bloomquist’s arrest, officers won’t necessarily respect this 2001 ruling.
So what should a bystander do if bearing witness to excessive police force? If choosing to speak up, under no circumstances should officers be threatened with physical force, called names or derided. Avoiding further further provocation of officers and a de-escalation of the situation should be the primary goal for a citizen objector. However, the regrettable truth is that things can still go sour, even if special care is taken. Confrontation is inherently risky; simply bearing witness and making documentation (especially video or photos) can be an important act on its own. (Sadly, this can also be somewhat risky; even though it’s completely legal to photograph police, officers aren’t always aware of this.)
That’s why groups like Copwatch may provide a practical solution to this issue. In Berkeley, Calif., Copwatch is a community volunteer organization which plays watchdog to the police behavior in the local neighborhoods. Small teams work in shifts, equipped with a camera, a tape recorder, a flashlight, forms to report incidents and a handbook about the group’s non-violent objectives. According to an ACLU profile, if a Copwatch team witnesses police impropriety, a lawyer is notified and legal options are pursued. It isn’t clear what effect Copwatch’s campaign has had, but it hopes to deter abuse and excessive force.
Grant Bloomquist’s civil rights lawsuit may also help pave the way to further protect citizens objecting to police abuse. The lawsuit seeks to impose changes to relevant Colorado Springs Police Department policies. If Bloomquist succeeds, this case should serve as wake up call to police departments everywhere that citizens have the right to object to rights violations — and to citizens that it is their protected duty to “say something” if they “see something.”