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D.C. Police Officer Charged for Joking about Killing First Lady

July 10, 2013

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Justin Carter, 19, has been in jail since March 27, when the Comal County (Texas) teen was arrested for making an off-color joke to a friend about a MOBA* computer game they were playing. “You’re crazy,” the friend told Carter. “I think I’ma shoot up a kindergarten. And watch the blood of the innocent rain down. And eat the beating heart of one of them,” Carter replied, adding “lol j/k.”

For this transgression, Carter was not just investigated, but arrested. He’s been in jail for months now, held on $500,000 bail. His attorney says he’s been beaten several times and placed on suicide watch; suicide watch, in case you didn’t know, translates to “placed naked in solitary confinement.”

Across the country, in Washington, D.C., a very similar situation has had a very different outcome. D.C. Police Officer Christopher Picciano, “a 17-year veteran who was a member of the elite presidential motorcade detail,” will be suspended without pay for a little over a month after joking about killing the first lady, threatening to go on a shooting spree, and calling Pres. Obama a communist:

A District police officer accused of threatening Michelle Obama has been cleared of administrative charges related to the first lady but was found guilty of posting a derogatory job description on social media and depicting the president as a communist, his attorney said Monday.

[….]

Picciano got into trouble in July 2012 while eating breakfast with a group of officers in a downtown restaurant. They were talking about the first lady’s threat level, and one officer explained that it was high because “a lot of people want to kill her.” Another officer then testified that Picciano said, “Yeah, because I want to kill her” and then showed that officer a picture of a handgun on his phone.

But Pressler said that two separate conversations were crossing the table at the same time. Picciano’s version is that the officer asked who would kill Obama — to which he answered, “I guess I would.” Pressler said his client was also talking about a birthday gift of a .40-caliber handgun and at the moment he made the joke, the picture of the gun downloaded on the phone he was holding up.

According to the Washington Post, the U.S. attorney’s office  declined to press charges against Picciano because it “agree[d] with the Secret Service that Picciano was not serious with his comment about Michelle Obama.” Picciano also “wrote on Facebook about taking a rifle to a tall building,” after the D.C. Council voted to trim pension benefits for the MPD. That wasn’t serious either, apparently.

Comal County, Texas, is a world away from Washington, D.C., so the two cases aren’t exactly apples-to-apples. Then again, Texas is also a world away from Massachusetts, where another  teenager was nearly rail-roaded for posting violent raps on Facebook. Could the differences between how Carter and Picciano were treated be largely geographical? It’s possible.

But there’s also something to be said about the benefit of a doubt afforded police officers (even bad ones) versus regular people. Picciano joked about killing the first lady and going on a Charles Whitman-esque shooting spree, yet remains free and employed in a job that allows him to carry a gun; Carter, a 19-year-old who doesn’t own a gun, joked about shooting up a school, and is being kept naked in solitary confinement as a result.

It’s possible that Carter made that joke in the wrong state, but I think in this case, and others like it, power matters far more than geography.

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