A cop charged her with failure to obey—his body camera tells a different story

The indiscriminate use of arrest powers is one of the most destructive forms of overpolicing in a country accustomed to aggressive law enforcement. In this episode of the Police Accountability Report, we examine the questionable arrest of a Mississippi woman who was detained by an officer and later charged for reasons that appear to contradict what was caught on body camera—an analysis which reveals just how potent police powers are, and why the ability to arrest requires more scrutiny.

Pre-Production: Stephen Janis
Studio/Post-Production: Stephen Janis, Adam Coley


Transcript

Taya Graham:     Hello. My name is Taya Graham, and welcome to the Police Accountability Report. As I always make clear, this show has a single purpose: holding the politically powerful institution of policing accountable. And to do so, we don’t just focus on the bad behavior of individual cops. Instead, we examine the system that makes bad policing possible. And today we will do so by showing this video of the arrest of a Mississippi woman for talking back to a cop. But it’s not just a story about a single arrest, but also about how another small town in rural America is using policing in ways that are punishing the poor and exploiting the power of the law.

But before we get started, I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct, please email it to us privately at par@therealnews.com. And please like, share, and comment on our videos. You know I read your comments and appreciate them. And of course you can always reach out to me directly @tayasbaltimore on Facebook or Twitter. And of course, if you can, please hit the Patreon link pinned in the comments below, because we do have some extras there for our PAR family. All right, we’ve gotten that out of the way.

Now, as we’ve talked about on this show before, the license to arrest is one of the most unassailable but nebulous powers in the American legal system. Meaning it is an act sanctioned by the government whose devastating consequences are not fully grasped. That’s because the ability to arrest has, in a sense, broadened over time. Let’s remember American police arrest roughly 10 million people per year. And as this study by the Vera Institute found, roughly 80% of those arrests are for low-level offenses such as disorderly conduct or substance possession.

The reason I cite these statistics is because while the numbers are stunning, it’s only through the individual stories that we can understand their implications. And no story could be a better example of how the vast power of arrest has become problematic than the tale of Columbus, Mississippi, resident Rebecca Hall. As you can see in this video here, Rebecca had actually called the police to the home of a friend in September of 2020 after getting into a dispute with the daughters of that same friend during a visit. Let’s watch.

[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]

Police Officer 1:     Except for, because Rebecca, [crosstalk] we just asked you a simple question and you’re still talking.

Rebecca Hall:           What is disorderly?

Police Officer 1:         You are still talking.

Rebecca Hall:             Because I’m talking, it’s disorderly? I’m not raising my voice. I’m not, [crosstalk].

Police Officer 1:        Rebecca, you are still talking. We’re not going to –

Rebecca Hall:        I would like to leave.

Police Officer 1:       Listen to me.

Rebecca Hall:          Can I leave?

Police Officer 1:        Rebecca. We’re not going to go back through this again. You understand me?

Rebecca Hall:         Can I leave? Can I leave?

Police Officer 1:      You understand me?

Rebecca Hall:           You understand me? I want to leave.

Police Officer 1:        Can you understand me?

Rebecca Hall:        I’m ready to leave.

Police Officer 1:        Do you understand me?

Rebecca Hall:          I’m ready to leave, sir.

Police Officer 1:      If you say one more word you’re going with me.

[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]

Taya Graham:             But it’s actually, after police showed up that things get dicey. Especially when police ask for ID. Let’s listen.

[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]

Police Officer 2:     …Over here to help me.

Police Officer 1:      No, I don’t want to hear it no more. No, I don’t want to hear anything else. You ain’t got to tell the police. I don’t want to hear anything else. I had enough.

Rebecca Hall:           Daddy, back up away from everything.

[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]

Taya Graham:            Now there are several facts we need to unpack here before we show the events leading up to the actual arrest, because, technically speaking, Rebecca called the police. And for that reason we should acknowledge that if you do call the police, it’s not unreasonable for the police to expect you to identify yourself when they arrive. Simply as a practical matter, it makes sense for police to speak to the person who asked police for help, and to ensure that people who make false charges are held accountable as well. However, it’s how the police handled the situation when it was clear that she didn’t want to give her ID that is the focus of our show today.

As we see, as the video continues, she was standing next to the police car as the police talked to several family members who she’d accused of assaulting her prior to the officer’s arrival. But even though she was not herself accused of a crime, this is what happened next.

[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]

Police Officer 1:     I’ve had enough.

Rebecca Hall:         Wait A minute. Look, look.

Police Officer 1:        We had [crosstalk] turn around. Turn around.

Rebecca Hall:            I was going back there to get pictures of the marijuana plants. Why are you acting like this?

Police Officer 2:       Failure to obey a police officer.

Rebecca Hall:          You didn’t, you didn’t tell me to do anything.

Police Officer 2:      I didn’t have, I didn’t have to. I got all this on. This is enough to tell you, I’m in jeopardy. You’ve been told – [crosstalk]

Police Officer 1:        – To central. Come on over here. We had enough

Rebecca Hall:            Sir.

Police Officer 1:      Come on.

Rebecca Hall:           For what? What am I being arrested for?

Police Officer 1:     Failure to obey.

Rebecca Hall:            What did you tell me to do?

Police Officer 1:        We’re not going to listen to all this ma’am. [crosstalk]

Police Officer 2:           Hold still. Stand still.

Rebecca Hall:          But that’s what you were saying, is failure to obey. But what command did you give me?

Police Officer 1:      We told you to be quiet and you still interfering when we trying to talk to everybody else [crosstalk].

Rebecca Hall:         So that’s a crime, you told me to be quiet?

Police Officer 1:       Yeah. You interfering when we trying to do our duty.

Police Officer 2:        [crosstalk] Right there, you failure to obey.

Rebecca Hall:         I was walking around there to get pictures of the marijuana.

[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]

Taya Graham:         Now I know it’s easy to just write this off as police just dealing with a dicey situation with the best tool at their disposal: an arrest. I mean, even though Rebecca has not committed a crime or was even accused of one, she was being a bit defiant, as we can see in this video prior to police putting her in handcuffs. Let’s listen.

[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]

Rebecca Hall:          I’m free. I don’t want to go anywhere.

Police Officer 1:       No, no, go ahead. We’re not going to listen to all this.

Rebecca Hall:      Well – [crosstalk] if you don’t want to listen.

Police Officer 1:        This is your friend right? You don’t tell me [crosstalk].

Police Officer 2:         Rebecca please.

Rebecca Hall:           I can ask for a supervisor for me. That’s not right. Why are you walking up on me like you’re trying to –

Police Officer 1:      You’re going to end up warming up. Do me a favor –

Rebecca Hall:          No I’m not. For what?

Police Officer 1:          Sir.

[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]

Taya Graham:           But the reason we’re talking about this case at all is how it directly points to a problem with American law enforcement that needs to be called to account: Just how readily, and falsely, police turn to arrest as a tool against dissent. Let’s watch again, and this time, let’s pay really close attention to what finally prompts an officer to take out the cuffs.

[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]

Rebecca Hall:        But wait, what command did you give me?

Police Officer 1:       We told you to be quiet and you still interfering when we trying to talk to everybody else.

Rebecca Hall:          So that’s a crime, you tell me to be quiet?

Police Officer 1:       Yeah. You interfering when we trying to do our duty.

Police Officer 2:          Right there you failure to obey.

Rebecca Hall:        I was walking around there to get pictures of the marijuana.

[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]

Taya Graham:          So it’s clear. The reason she was arrested was not because she posed a threat, or had committed a crime, or was otherwise imminent harm to the officer or bystander. She wasn’t put into handcuffs because the officer witnessed her break the law. It seems that the cop that took her into custody was simply annoyed. Meaning he found her behavior bothersome and decided to use the power of the law to abate it. And that is why the story is important, because it points to a deeper problem with law enforcement. And for more on this arrest and what it says about policing and, in particular, in rural America, I’m joined by my reporting partner Stephen Janis. Stephen, thank you so much for joining me.

Stephen Janis:          Taya, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Taya Graham:          So first, you’ve reached out to the Columbus, Mississippi, Police Department for comment. What have you learned?

Stephen Janis:         Well, firstly, this arrest was executed by Lowndes County Sheriff’s Department, who are the people that actually made the arrest, although that includes Columbus, but not actually the Columbus Police Department. But what’s really interesting is we had some breaking news here. There was an FTA issued for Rebecca’s arrest because she hadn’t paid a fine related to this actual arrest of $278. And because of that she had to spend three to four days in jail, she’s told us. So, really, we reached out to them and asked them why and why are they doing this? They haven’t gotten back to us yet. But obviously it’s astounding that there was a very high fine related to this, which seems to be not only a questionable arrest, but a questionable fine.

Taya Graham:        But like other cities, you did some digging on the finances and the political economy of the town with regards to policing. What have you uncovered?

Stephen Janis:          Well, this is astonishing. The town of Columbus, Mississippi, as far as I can tell, does not share their financial information with the public. I searched the website over and over again. Couldn’t find the budget. So I emailed every single council person on the council, saying, could you please release the budget? Where are the budget figures? Now, they may be somewhere else, but they’re not easy to find, so obviously they don’t like to be too transparent about their finances. And I’m assuming there’s a reason why.

Taya Graham:             And finally, we’re talking about the overuse of arrests by American law enforcement. You’ve been looking into the data. What is it telling you?

Stephen Janis:    Well, if you look at the Vera Institute, they say that there are 10 million arrests a year, which is an astonishing number. But I think the best way to look at it is to see how much more efficient our criminal justice system is than other social processes which might benefit us. Like for example, is healthcare as effective as being able to process 10 million people a year? 10 million people a year through local jails, prisons, federal facilities. It’s an amazing amount of people, it’s extraordinary. And yet we have nothing similar, I think, in our social services, in the things that would actually help us, make us healthier, make us more productive, provide us jobs. So I think it’s an astounding fact that so many people are arrested and the cops are able to arrest so many people without more pushback from the public.

Taya Graham:         And now we’re joined by the woman who was subject to this questionable arrest. Rebecca, thank you so much for joining us.

Rebecca Hall:         I appreciate your time.

Taya Graham:             So it seems on the video that the police officer put you in the handcuffs just for talking back. Is that correct?

Rebecca Hall:          In the video that they gave me, in the body cam footage, he said, she’s trying to get smart and we ain’t going to have that. That’s what he said. And when he put me in the back of the car, I said, you’re telling me you are arresting me for not being quiet? He said, yep. Yes ma’am. I called them for help.

Taya Graham:         After you were arrested, what were the exact charges you were facing?

Rebecca Hall:          That time it was failure to obey a police officer, which is actually a secondary charge. You have to be detained before you have to obey a police officer.

Taya Graham:      Have you heard of other people having issues with this police department?

Rebecca Hall:       Yes ma’am. ‘Cause see, nobody has the balls to record them like I do. I’m just telling you the truth, because I know who I am. You have to realize, realization versus knowledge. You know what I’m saying? You can know it, but you got to realize who you are, man. And once you realize I ain’t taking no shit, I’m sorry. I’m not. No, I’m not sorry. Like I said in the video. But I want to educate the people in my town. Because I love y’all, man. And these police have been doing that to y’all too long. They kill the Black people. They shoot them in the back here. I’m telling you, Taya, it’s out of control. They be murdering people.

Taya Graham:           How do you think officers should have handled the situation?

Rebecca Hall:        Man, they should have been concerned about, did I get hurt? Was I okay? They never even mentioned it was a stop call, they called it a disturbance. They called it a disturbance on the fake ass report they made, the investigative report. They lied. They sounded like robots in court. But let me tell you, I know it was all staged. It’s so stupid, because they think I’m stupid.

Taya Graham:        So how has this affected you and impacted your life?

Rebecca Hall:           Taya, I preach to strangers. I look crazy as hell around here. Y’all know me. If you live in Columbus, y’all have seen me. And I tell you, under any circumstances, record the police, record them no matter what. When they tell you to put that phone down, don’t do it, make them throw you down. Cause baby, that’s your right.

Taya Graham:      Now I’m sure anyone who watched my interview with Rebecca and the video of her arrest would ask a simple but reasonable question: Why should we care about the fairly uneventful arrestable woman who wouldn’t identify herself? And why, given that there are many more extreme examples of police overreach, should we take the time to unpack an incident that simply resulted in a short stay in jail and some unpleasant court time? Fair question. Let me try to answer.

Now as I’ve mentioned on this show before, I live in Baltimore City, Maryland. It’s a town that’s known for crab cakes, the Ravens, and, unfortunately, the popular copaganda-esque show called The Wire. But we also invented another less heralded concept that became a law enforcement tool for mayhem and communal destruction that continues to have consequences for residents today. The concept emerged during Baltimore’s massive experiment with a strategy called zero tolerance, which we’ve referenced on the show before.

During a period from roughly 2000 to 2007, police arrested 100,000 people a year in a city with a population of 600,000. And these arrests weren’t targeted at hardened criminals. Instead, police scooped up anybody sitting on stoops, drinking a beer, spitting on the sidewalk, or simply walking in a neighborhood where they didn’t live. It was a policy the Department of Justice eventually concluded was unconstitutional after a lengthy investigation, but it also created a problem for Baltimore Police. Zero tolerance led to so many people facing charges, the court system could not process the number of cases it generated. So in order to alleviate the burden, prosecutors would drop hundreds of cases almost daily with a notation that they had been, and I’m quoting, “abated by arrest.” Now this is a legal concept that didn’t really exist before people started arresting everyone. It’s sort of an odd legal limbo between adjudicating a case and dropping it.

And while this might sound innocuous, I want you to think about how this idea plays out for a second. First, the Baltimore City Police make so many arrests that the system becomes overloaded with cases. People’s right to move about freely is restricted to the point where courts simply cannot adjudicate. Then, instead of simply dropping the cases, prosecutors invent a new legal concept to deal with the overload that allows them to skip the process of deciding whether the charges are justified or if the officer violated the law. Mind you, the basic underlying idea of the Constitution is that everyone has the right to defend themselves in court. In fact, it is a right so inviolable it is consecrated in a series of key amendments that outline a variety of legal stipulations that in part bolster a key idea behind all of our legal jurisprudence: the presumption of innocence.

But here in Baltimore, thanks to police overreach, that right was simply buried by a system addicted to policing space with the stroke of the pen and the acquiescence of politicians and prosecutors alike. The imperative of policing was able to overwhelm and bury the basic Constitutional rights of the people. And the concept of abated by arrest ended up denying people the right to defend themselves in court, and perhaps cut off a vital venue where government sponsored violence of bad policing could have been exposed for what it truly was. But that didn’t happen, because, truthfully, as this example and as Rebecca’s arrest makes clear, we think very little about the consequences of using arrests indiscriminately and how that overuse can evolve into a dangerous political tool that can literally wipe out our rights if it’s allowed to expand – No pun intended – Unabated.

But again, you could ask the question, why does it matter? Why should I care?

Well, as I’ve mentioned before on this show, you can literally see the consequences here in our city. Vacant houses standing in disrepair, one of the highest murder rates in the country, rampant poverty. And, of course, all of it fodder for Hollywood elites like David Simon, who can turn our misery into million dollar programming for entertainment titans like HBO. But if you’re still not convinced, then consider an entirely different source. It’s a book by a Russian novelist, no less: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn is perhaps best known for his book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a dark and foreboding realistic portrayal of life inside Russian forced labor camps. But, I’m going to use another of his works that best applies to this discussion called the Gulag Archipelago.

It was a novel that delved into further detail about the forced imprisonment and death of millions of Russians under Joseph Stalin. And what is most notable about this book and my topic today is simply the title of the first chapter, “Arrest.” In a short 16 pages, Solzhenitsyn describes the terror and trauma and the violence and vileness of the use of arrest as a tool of oppression. He recounts how the Soviets of Stalin’s era would arrest people in their homes at all hours of the night for crimes unknown and for violating laws that didn’t exist. It was the precursor to all the suffering that followed. A way to subsume the people into a system of exploitation that caused untold suffering and still reverberates today. Now, I am not suggesting that we face anything similar in the present here, but what I do want to point out is how powerful the ability to arrest actually is. How a license to put someone in a cage is a profound capability that cannot be underestimated.

And that when it is abused, it is literally a vehicle for anti-democratic impulses that are always evolving and always seeking a path of less resistance to create more power for the elites and less for the people who deserve better. Which is why even in a case like Rebecca’s, we must be vigilant. It’s why we do need to continue to watch the police and expose their abusive powers that are anything but innocuous. It’s why it’s important to examine any use of arrest that does not take into account the consequences of misusing it. And that is why any example of police overreach is critical to parse, regardless of circumstance. And that is why we will continue to report on cases like Rebecca and others, because we will not let police abate our rights.

I want to thank Rebecca for sharing her experience with us, and I also want to wish her the best on becoming a cop watcher. Thank you, Rebecca. And of course, I want to thank intrepid reporter Stephen Janis for his writing, research, and editing on this piece. Thank you, Stephen.

Stephen Janis:        Taya, thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

Taya Graham:        And of course, I want to thank friend of the show Noli Dee for her support. Thanks, Noli Dee. And of course, a very special thanks to our Patreons, we really do appreciate you. And I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct or brutality, please share it with us and we might be able to investigate for you. Please reach out to us. You can email us tips privately at par@therealnews.com and share your evidence of police misconduct. You can also message us at Police Accountability Report on Facebook or Instagram or @eyesonpolice on Twitter.

And of course you can always message me directly @tayasbaltimore on Twitter or Facebook. And please like and comment. You know I read your comments and appreciate them, and I try to answer your questions whenever I can. And we do have a Patreon link pinned in the comments below. So if you do feel inspired to donate, please do because we don’t run ads or take corporate dollars. So anything you can spare is always greatly appreciated. My name is Taya Graham, and I’m your host of the Police Accountability Report. Please be safe out there.

Taya Graham

Host & Producer
Taya Graham is an award-winning investigative reporter who has covered U.S. politics, local government, and the criminal justice system. She is the host of TRNN's "Police Accountability Report," and producer and co-creator of the award-winning podcast "Truth and Reconciliation" on Baltimore's NPR affiliate WYPR. She has written extensively for a variety of publications including the Afro American Newspaper, the oldest black-owned publication in the country, and was a frequent contributor to Morgan State Radio at a historic HBCU. She has also produced two documentaries, including the feature-length film "The Friendliest Town." Although her reporting focuses on the criminal justice system and government accountability, she has provided on the ground coverage of presidential primaries and elections as well as local and state campaigns.

 
taya@therealnews.com
 
@tayasbaltimore

Stephen Janis

Host & Producer
Stephen Janis is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work has been acclaimed both in print and on television. As the Senior Investigative Reporter for the now defunct Baltimore Examiner, he won two Maryland DC Delaware Press Association Awards for his work on the number of unsolved murders in Baltimore and the killings of prostitutes. His in-depth work on the city's zero-tolerance policing policies garnered an NAACP President's Award. As an Investigative Producer for WBFF/Fox 45, he has won three successive Capital Emmys: two for Best Investigative Series and one for Outstanding Historical/Cultural Piece.

He is the author of three books on the philosophy of policing: Why Do We Kill? The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore; You Can't Stop Murder: Truths About Policing in Baltimore and Beyond; and The Book of Cop: A Testament to Policing That Works. He has also written two novels, This Dream Called Death and Orange: The Diary of an Urban Surrealist. He teaches journalism at Towson University.