First Amendment and the New London police parking lot
Daniel Kokoszka, a young man evidently with a lot of free time on his hands, decided one day last year to exercise his First Amendment rights by strolling into the rear parking lot of the New London Police Department and start videotaping with his cell phone.
This is an area that probably should be off limits to the public, given it is where city-owned police cars equipped with weapons are parked every day. In fact, about a month before Kokoszka's self-indulgent skit, police discovered a man in the same lot who later admitted he wanted to steal a police vehicle.
So, when a guy no one knows starts walking around the parking lot filming with a cellphone, it's going to arouse suspicion, concern, even anxiety. Is he a videographer working on a documentary? Is he mentally unstable and carrying a weapon? Or is he a self-righteous, if misguided, American citizen conducting what he calls a First Amendment audit by seeing if police will fall into his trap?
I'm a firm believer in the First Amendment and its protections. Still, I'm going to climb way out on a limb here and suggest that Kokoszka's baiting of NLPD Lt. Joshua Bergeson had more to do with self-aggrandizement and, possibly, disdain for police, than it did with the First Amendment.
"Hey, dudes, wait'll you see what I did in New London today!"
He is the same type of guy who yells "Baba Booey!" at televised golf tournaments and goes shirtless at football games when the temperature is in single digits. Pay attention to me!
For allowing himself to be drawn into a confrontation with Kokoszka - which is precisely what Kokoszka had hoped for - Bergeson drew an eight-day suspension and was ordered into retraining by Police Chief Brian Wright. Later on the day of the confrontation, New London Mayor Michael Passero and Chief Wright received emails with links to a video of the incident and a suggestion that Bergeson be fired. An internal investigation ensued, and Bergeson was suspended for violating department policies regarding respect and courtesy, conduct unbecoming an officer and use of force reporting.
It should be noted that about a month before the confrontation, Chief Wright emailed a reminder to his officers that the public has a right to record in public settings. The email included a link to a news story about four Danbury police officers who were disciplined for removing another such agitator for filming in the city's public library.
"Please do not let yourself be baited or engage in a manner that does not display our professionalism," the chief wrote.
Which, unfortunately, is exactly what Bergeson did. So, it is understandable that Wright would be upset about this and take disciplinary action.
However, Bergeson has a side to this story, too:
"There have been numerous acts of violence against police officers at police stations," Bergeson said in his own defense. "Subjects have attempted to force entry into buildings, and even light occupied police buildings on fire. So while their recording on the property is not suspicious, I believe in light of recent events and the current climate toward law enforcement, individuals wandering through our police department parking lot would be deemed suspicious."
During August 2022, the same month Kokoszka entertained himself by baiting a veteran cop, six American law enforcement officers were shot to death in the line of duty. A total of 64 were shot to death during 2022, while 14 others were killed in vehicular assaults. It's a safe bet that none of them expected when they began their shift that they would die before it was over. Thousands of other police officers are assaulted in the line of duty every year. Thus, Bergeson's concern is understandable.
In the wake of George Floyd's killing by Minneapolis police, there were calls in some parts of the country to defund and, in some cases, even disband police. The riots that ensued caused billions in property damage - some even to police property. The riots included violent attacks on police, relatively few of which resulted in arrests, and even fewer that brought convictions and any meaningful punishment.
Yes, there are bad cops, awful cops, racist cops - ones who willfully abuse their authority to bully and harass; they protect their friends and punish people they don't like, use excessive force, even injure and kill people in their custody. They should be deplored, weeded out, and punished. In an era when there is far less tolerance for police misconduct, that is what is happening now with greater frequency. In many departments, body cameras now record their on-duty movements. And that's as it should be with a function that protects the police as much as the public.
For varying reasons, some people don't like cops ... until, of course, they need one. Love 'em or hate 'em, police work around the clock - 24/7/365 and put their lives on the line every time they put on a uniform and go on patrol. Some die and are injured in the line of duty. They often find themselves waist deep in violent crime, personal hardship, death and injury at accident scenes, domestic fights, child custody disputes, neighborhood arguments, and the plight of the mentally ill.
Not that any of this excuses bad behavior, but they are spit upon, cursed, belittled, threatened, assaulted, criticized and second-guessed, often by people who know little or nothing about law enforcement. It's no wonder state and local police departments throughout the nation are having trouble attracting sufficient numbers of competent recruits.
Then, on top of all that, they encounter the likes of Daniel Kokoszka - smarmy know-it-alls who want to impress their dimwitted friends and YouTube viewers by filming their confrontations with a cop on the cop's turf, baiting and standing up to him and getting him punished - all under the guise of First Amendment protection. Be assured, this isn't exactly what The Founders intended when drafting the Constitution.
If it was up to me, Bergeson would have gotten chewed out for allowing himself, on duty and in an NLPD unform, to be taken down to Kokoszka's level; ordered to re-read the July 2022 email from the chief and the department regulations he violated; never allowed himself to be baited like this again; go back to work and stay safe out there.
As for Kokoszka, he would do better to heed what Bergeson told him during their encounter last year behind the police station: "Go find something better to do with your life."
Bill Stanley, a former Day reporter, is a retired vice president of Lawrence + Memorial Hospital.