A recent arrest of a man playing guitar on a public sidewalk raises deeper questions about the power of American policing and how cops have nearly lawless discretion to arrest and harm.


Story Transcript

This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Taya Graham: Hello, my name is Taya Graham and welcome to the Police Accountability Report. As I’ve said before, this show has a single purpose, to hold police accountable. To do so, we take deep dives, examining stories of encounters with police that affect people across the country. Today, we have a story that illustrates exactly what the show is about, but before we get started, 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. 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 at Eyes on Police on Twitter. And of course, you can message me directly at [@tayasbaltimore 00:00:50] on Twitter or Facebook and please like and comment. You know I read your comments and that I appreciate them.

Now, one thing that [Stephen 00:00:55] and I have learned reporting on policing across the country is this. There is an often in explicable psychology that defines American law enforcement which fuels many of the problems that makes it so fraught with danger for the individual and for our democracy. Occasionally, we call this contempt-of-cop arrests, police encounters over space and constitutionally protected behavior that inexplicably escalates into arrest, conflicts that seem on the surface easily dismissed that sometimes descend into violence. But why do they keep happening and what do they mean and what do they tell us about America’s brand of law enforcement in general? Well there are two ways to look at this, through the prism of history and cultural theory. Both offer insights that are often overlooked.

First of all, we have to remember that in some ways police were created to enforce economic inequality. Let’s remember, the man who created the modern police force, Sir Robert Peel, was the son of a wealthy capitalist and mill owner. Due to his often ruthless business practices, workers would occasionally revolt. So his son who was prime minister of England came up with the idea of policing. And if you really look hard, that initial push to create a force to protect the property of wealth lies at the root of what drives policing today and it’s much of what makes it so dysfunctional. But like many things in this country, we added our own perverse twist to the European formula for disaster. That’s because, thanks to our pension for enslaving people of color, the idea of police primarily protecting property for the rich evolved into the practice of law enforcement hurting and controlling bodies. We’ve all heard about, and I’m sure understand, America’s ugly and shameful past history of chasing runaway slaves across the country. It was a business so brisk that recently the New York Times recounted how a pair of slave-catching partners turn the trade of black bodies into the equivalent of a billion-dollar industry in today’s dollars, and these dual historical roots explain in part the type of policing we have today.
Then add in the war on drugs which allowed nearly limitless arrest powers due to spatial association with objects as absurd as a single marijuana plant and you can see why American cops inspires so much derision, but there is another aspect to this police origin story, something that we talk about on the show quite a bit but often gets overlooked by the mainstream media. I’m talking about the rhetoric, a combination of deliberate rhetoric which is used to sway your opinion and judicial rhetoric which is used to justify actions and decisions. Then combine that with our social conditioning to respect authority, add to that the symbolism of policing, and you see how that process only builds upon the roots we’ve already discussed and hints at another socially regressive imperative for American cops. Stephen, you have studied this quite a bit. How do police actually alter our perception?

Stephen Janis: [inaudible 00:03:42]. All the history you talked about requires constant evolution because it’s rooted in injustice. As society evolves, police have to come up with new ways to justify that injustice because it becomes more difficult over time. So you see with the [copaganda 00:03:58] shows, anyone who watches popular culture knows there’s tons of shows-

Taya Graham: I think there’s seven different like NCIS shows in Florida, all over the country. These cop shows are so popular.

Stephen Janis: And because unlike other countries the US has a high rate of police killings, somehow you have to come up with a rhetorical or narratological tool to make this justified for people so people don’t even understand what is happening to them.

Taya Graham: You’re right. And that us-against-them mentality effectively stifles any sort of dissent or critique-

Stephen Janis: Right. Yeah.

Taya Graham: … completely.

Stephen Janis: You have to respect law enforcement in all aspects, and that’s what translates into the contempt-of-cop arrests, right? Because the police officer is infused with this rhetoric that any sort of saying, “Police officer, I’m not going to walk over to the corner because you told me to,” becomes part of that narrative and then must be placed in the context. “Well I’ll arrest him.”

Taya Graham: And of course as always on PAR, we like to show, not tell, and nothing could be more indicative of the problems with American policing than the experience of our next guest. His encounter with police started innocently enough on the sidewalk where he was holding a guitar. He encounters a cop who begins giving him odd orders.

Speaker 3: For someone out here playing the guitar, this is all private property owned. So you either need permission or you just need to move on.

Joe Workman: It looks like a public sidewalk.

Speaker 3: This isn’t a public sidewalk.

Joe Workman: This is.

Speaker 3: This isn’t a public sidewalk.

Joe Workman: Oh, really? I’ll take a picture of that then.

Speaker 3: Go ahead.

Joe Workman: All right. What’s your name and your badge number?

Speaker 3: It’s Patrolmen [inaudible 00:05:20] 7918.

Joe Workman: Yeah?

Speaker 3: Yeah.

Joe Workman: All right. I invoke my Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.

Speaker 3: All right.

Joe Workman: I’m on a public sidewalk.

Speaker 3: You’re not on a public sidewalk and you need to get moving.

Joe Workman: This is a fucking sidewalk.

Speaker 3: That is the sidewalk. This is not. And however-

Joe Workman: Oh, you mean this? You mean that’s-

Speaker 3: However, you cannot solicit in Woodmere.

Joe Workman: I’m not soliciting. So what’s your name and badge number?

Speaker 3: I already told you.

Joe Workman: All right. Get a supervisor out here then.

Speaker 3: He’s right here.

Taya Graham: Soon, because he refuses to follow them because they are unlawful, tensions escalated. Let’s watch.

Joe Workman: You said I’m going to go to jail?

Speaker 5: Yes.

Joe Workman: Why?

Speaker 5: For failing to comply with a lawful order. I’m telling you that we have an ordinance.

Joe Workman: Yeah, but your ordinance says nothing about noise.

Speaker 5: We have a noise ordinance.

Joe Workman: No, it’s not. I’ve read your ordinances.

Speaker 5: If you’re playing, I’m going to take you to jail. Okay.

Joe Workman: For playing guitar?

Speaker 5: If you play it again, I’m going to take you to jail. Okay?

Joe Workman: Oh, yeah?

Speaker 5: Yeah.

Joe Workman: All right. Well I have a lawyer for that.

Speaker 5: I don’t care what you got.

Joe Workman: All right.

Speaker 5: I’m going to take you to jail. Matter of fact, matter of fact-

Joe Workman: Matter of fact, I’m putting the guitar away. I’m going to see your ass in court, you fucking piece of shit.

Speaker 5: Excuse me?

Joe Workman: Dude, you’re fucking being an asshole.

Speaker 5: I’m being an asshole?

Joe Workman: Yeah. Why? I was playing the goddamn guitar.

Speaker 5: You keep cussing, I’m going to arrest you for disorderly conduct.

Joe Workman: No, because you can’t. Yeah, because you can’t because the First Amendment protects me, you fucking-

Speaker 5: Fucking what?

Joe Workman: First Amendment. The First Amendment, dude. You ever hear that one?

Speaker 5: Yeah. All right. Put that down. Put that down. Put it down?

Joe Workman: Why?

Speaker 5: You’re going to jail.

Joe Workman: For what?

Speaker 5: Put this down. Put the guitar down.

Speaker 3: Put it down.

Speaker 5: That’s right. The guitar’s down. Dude, get down on the ground.

Joe Workman: All right. All right.

Speaker 5: Put your hand back there. Don’t fucking move.

Joe Workman: I’m not moving. I promise.

Speaker 5: I promise you’re going to jail now.

Joe Workman: For what?

Taya Graham: Now before we get too deep into what happened, we are joined by the man himself. Our guest today is Joe Workman, a guitarist and street performer who’s been fighting for his First Amendment rights. Joe, thank you so much for joining us.

Joe Workman: My pleasure.

Taya Graham: So Joe, tell me. How did this incident start? I believe you were busking or playing guitar for money outside of a Starbucks. How did this all begin?

Joe Workman: Yeah, I’d like to note that I play in the area. It’s called Chagrin Falls out there. I play there a lot and it’s a well respected activity out there. It’s commonplace. Woodmere is very close to Chagrin Falls. I figured I’d just branch out a little bit and try playing over there. Yeah, I did not expect to come in contact with any law enforcement or security or anything like that. I was just basically enjoying my day playing my instrument.

Taya Graham: So you’re out there playing the guitar. I think you even mentioned in the video that there were people who were enjoying your music, and then an officer threatens you. How did the officers start to threaten you? I think it initially started with him saying you were trespassing, and then you had to step one foot onto the sidewalk. How did this incident really begin and when did it start to really escalate?

Joe Workman: Right. They told me I had to leave and that I could not play guitar and that if I played my guitar once again, that I’d be arrested.

Taya Graham: So you’re playing your guitar and he threatens to arrest you for playing your guitar. And then you use a little bit of profanity and he threatens to arrest you for using profanity. And you say, “Wait a second. I have freedom of speech.” Were you shocked when this officer didn’t understand your constitutional rights?

Joe Workman: Oh, yeah. I mean he swore an oath. He’s a Sergeant. He swore an oath to protect all the amendments and clearly contradicted that.

Taya Graham: Joe, why do you think the officer assaulted you? Because eventually it seems like he takes you to the ground really hard and starts to put you in cuffs. Why do you think he assaulted you?

Joe Workman: I think it might have to do with the ego that so many officials in the policing industry have. It seems like they need to control somebody else. Yeah, there’s a lot possibly that could have been going through his head, but I think he was just pissed off that I insulted him and took it into his own hands.

Taya Graham: Now, just something that stood out to me is that even when he had you on the ground in handcuffs, he threatened to charge you again with a resisting arrest. Do you know why he did that?

Joe Workman: I imagine it’s because I told them that I was planning on suing them.

Stephen Janis: Joe, how did you get ahold of the body camera footage? Is that something you got? Is that something they gave to you or did they release that? How were you able to obtain that?

Joe Workman: Actually, it took a little bit of prying for me because I had to go to the police department a couple of times before they really gave me like the procedure on how to get it. They made it seem like I wasn’t going to be able to get it at first and then it ended up being $15 dollars for a CD.

Taya Graham: So I wanted to know. Does this officer have any history of violating people’s civil rights? I mean this officer could have easily deescalated the situation. So does he have any sort of history of doing this? What have you found out about this officer?

Joe Workman: There was something about a DUI. I know that’s why he … He’s an award-winning officer.

Taya Graham: Are you facing any charges right now for what happened with you and this officer that night?

Joe Workman: Yeah, there’s a whole list of them he kind of generated.

Taya Graham: So I think one of the charges would probably be resisting arrest. Another charge I think he said, now this was during the video, was disorderly conduct. I mean I imagine this is going to be somewhat of a hardship on you having to get a lawyer, having to go back and forth with court. I’m sure this is very stressful. How are you feeling right now knowing that you have to face criminal charges because of what this officer did?

Joe Workman: It is scary. It’s frustrating, scary, disheartening. I mean I know I’m not the only one going through something like this right now and yeah, it’s overwhelming.

Taya Graham: What would you want to happen as a result? Do you want an apology from this officer? What do you hope will be the result of coming forward and sharing your story with us today?

Joe Workman: I’m not against … I think there’s uses for laws in society and I think actually the stricter laws is the answer because these officers need to be subject to higher standards and possibly better training.

Taya Graham: I think that’s very fair to say that officers should adhere to a higher standard simply because they’re being given the power of life and death over us when they put on that badge. So in theory, they should be held to a higher standard. It’s clear just from watching this one video American police have a problem. They have been given almost unlimited power without the requisite responsibility of how to use it properly. They can take a life based upon any perception that their own is in danger whether that’s true or not. They can arrest and imprison anyone without due cause just like with what we saw today over a minor conflict over space. They can become, in essence, a destroyer of lives and often nonproductive views of the social power invested in them that rarely gets questioned.

Instead, as Stephen discussed, the police translate any dissent or discussion of what they should be doing into the rhetoric of us against them. You’re either with us or against us. Do what we say, not what we do. Does that sound familiar? I think we all know where the stifling of free speech and free press and descent leads. It leads us into a police state where we run home before nightfall to lock our doors and pray we won’t be the next ones dragged away in the middle of the night. I’d like to thank my guest, Joe, for coming to talk with us today and sharing his story for his fight for freedom of speech. Thank you so much, Joe.

Joe Workman: My pleasure. Good to be here.

Taya Graham: And of course I want to thank my colleague investigative reporter, Stephen Janis, for his invaluable writing and reporting. And I’d like to thank one of our viewers, [Nollie 00:13:25] D. for her research for this Police Accountability Report. Thank you, Nollie D. And before we go, 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. Reach out to us. You can email us tips privately par@therealnews.com and share your evidence of police misconduct. Of course, you can message me directly at @tayasbaltimore on Twitter or Facebook, and please like and comment. I do read your comments and appreciate them. Please share our videos to help us get the word out. I’m your host, Taya Graham, and I want to thank you for joining me for this Police Accountability Report. Be safe out there.


Taya Graham

Host & Producer
Before joining TRNN as an investigative journalist, Taya worked in Baltimore’s neighborhoods of color for years as an advocate and was awarded the Coalition of 100 Black Women’s Torchbearer Award and YANA’s (You Are Never Alone) “Love in Action” award. Her years of outreach to underserved communities have uniquely prepared her to connect with city residents. Now she cultivates relationships with Baltimore’s citizens to cover the stories on the ground.

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.