The Cowardice of Covering for Too-Violent Cops

A brutality case in New Jersey illustrates how the failures of law-enforcement agencies to police themselves can be thought of as failures of courage.

Mark Makela / Reuters

Last May, a 16-year-old without a driver’s license was steering his parents’ sedan down a street in Carteret, New Jersey, when a police car pulled behind him with its lights flashing. The young man, who wasn’t wearing his seat belt, either tried to flee or panicked and hit the gas pedal instead of the brakes. He crashed the vehicle into a guy-wire beside a utility pole, triggering its airbags.

Officer Joseph Reiman, a former Marine, quickly exited his car and approached the crash. When backup arrived moments later with a dash-cam running, Reiman was recorded pummeling the teen with punches about his head and face.

A man interviewed by a local newspaper offered this version of what happened. “The way he was punching him was excessive,” he said. “I thought he was going to beat him to death.”

The teen’s father filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit. And Middlesex County Prosecutor Andrew C. Carey agreed that the young man had been needlessly brutalized: According to The Courier News, he charged Reiman with one count of aggravated assault and three counts of official misconduct “for assaulting the teenager, failing to activate his body-worn camera, and failing to use reasonable discretion or restraint in the amount of force used to apprehend the teenager.”

Reiman has pleaded not guilty, but this article is not about his trial. It is about a quality that most Americans expect their police officers to exhibit: courage.

But what sort?

When last I explored the subject in “The Kind of Courage America Demands of Its Police,”  President Trump was calling a deputy in Broward County, Florida, a coward for staying outside a high-school building even as an active shooter killed inside.

Yet the label of “coward” is almost never deployed when an excessively jittery police officer needlessly shoots an unarmed person, I noticed, even though nearly all who do so say, “I feared for my life.” Would police officers in the U.S. still kill so many more people than officers in any other wealthy country if we valued the courage it can take to refrain from using lethal force as much as we value the courage to run into danger?

The New Jersey case bears on another sort of courage that Americans undervalue—it raises the question of whether Reiman’s colleagues in the Carteret Police Department possessed the courage to expose an excessively violent colleague. A strong case can be made that their courage was deficient.

First, there is the statistical evidence suggesting that Reiman was unusually likely to employ force. “The borough police officer charged with assaulting a teenager is responsible for more than one-fifth of all arrests involving force recorded by the department over a 23-month period,” NJ Advance Media reported. “From the time Joseph Reiman was hired in July 2015, the 50-person department logged 115 incidents in which an officer used force, such as a punch, baton or weapon against a suspect, according to documents obtained under the state Open Public Records Act. Reiman, 31, the brother of longtime Mayor Daniel Reiman, accounted for 24 of the incidents, more than twice as many as any other officer.”

What’s more, he used pepper spray 10 times during arrests during a period when the rest of the Carteret Police Department combined used pepper spray just eight times.

And his record was no secret. The news organization adds that “not long after he became a cop, he developed a reputation in town for using excessive force, according to dozens of interviews with residents conducted over the past three months.”

Finally, three cops were recorded talking candidly about their colleague in the aftermath of the young motorist’s beating. Among the things they said:

  • “They’re all sitting around a table right now trying to get their fucking story straight.”
  • “If he does this as a cop, what did he do before actually when he was in war. Holy shit, there was probably a freaking wave of innocent victims.”
  • “That kid looks like he went 10 rounds with Mike Tyson.”
  • “That’s just Joe fucking pounding this kid.”
  • “This is indefensible. You look at this kid and he is not overpowering Joe.”

Reiman’s colleagues apparently believed his use of force against the 16-year-old was excessive. If they worked as hard to hold a fellow police officer accountable as they might have done against a non-cop with his reputation, could the incident have been prevented? Cops can be most loath to protect and serve the public when it requires ratting out a colleague. And Reiman’s brother was the mayor. Who wants to risk their career?

In short, standing up to Reiman seems to have required more courage than his colleagues possessed. Getting a cop with huge statistical red flags and citizen complaints off the street took a lawsuit, local journalists willing to investigate, a witness, newspaper coverage, and dash-cam video. The failure, however, is not only on the officers who failed to act; it also rests with society at large, which does not much value courage when it manifests as cops blowing the whistle. And policing culture can be especially vicious toward those it dubs “rats.”

The nature of that viciousness is echoed in this case by the telling language that Reiman’s defense attorney chose to attack the cops overheard criticizing his client:

Joseph Reiman’s attorney, Charles Sciarra, said in a statement Friday, referring to the police heard in the videos, that these “officers are known malingerers who slow roll to calls like they did on this one, and are cut from the same cloth as the officer in the Florida school shooting who stayed outside the building while those kids were slaughtered.”

Sciarra also called on NJ Advance Media to name the officers so the attorney could “review their pitiful arrest numbers and lack of law enforcement activity as well as their agenda.”

In this telling, to be courageous as a cop is to deploy force quickly and often; to be a cowardly cop is to use force slowly and seldom, no matter whether the context is declining to stop a mass murderer or not rushing to pummel an unarmed 16-year-old. By the attorney’s explicit account, those two kinds of cops are “cut from the same cloth.”

Like the priesthood and the Boy Scouts of America, police departments will always attract some of the very best and very worst adults in the country: The many who want to protect the vulnerable, even at risk to themselves, and the few who want to brutalize the vulnerable and know that some jobs afford unusually good opportunities. For that reason, every police officer should be as bound—morally, legally, and culturally—to report bad behavior as a teacher who learns of a child molester.

But while legal and departmental requirements and repercussions vary, most Americans are not acculturated to demand that cops zealously police their own, to condemn cops who see something but don’t say anything, or to celebrate cops who flag abusive colleagues. Whistleblowing cops are heroes, for little is more dangerous than a criminal who is armed not only with fists and guns, but with a badge.

It sounds harsh to call cops who fail to report bad colleagues “cowards.” A degree of loyalty is inevitable among people who risk their lives with one another. They understandably fear being turned on by the most violent and unethical among their peers, retaliation from management, and the prospect of losing their livelihood. But cowardice is defined as “fear that makes you unable to do what is right or expected.”

The word fits.

It would be ideal to change policing culture so that reporting misconduct is so normal it is assumed, and requires no courage. Maybe we’d get there faster by consistently applying the word “coward” to cops who most egregiously fail to stop rogue colleagues, so that those with a desire to embody courage stiffen themselves to the task.