This column in the Washington Post by Sunil Dutta, a Los Angeles police officer, will likely make your blood boil. It certainly did mine. It’s not all bad. He does agree that all cops should wear uniform cameras and seems to understand that some cops do engage in misconduct and brutality. But then there’s this:
Regardless of what happened with Mike Brown, in the overwhelming majority of cases it is not the cops, but the people they stop, who can prevent detentions from turning into tragedies…
Even though it might sound harsh and impolitic, here is the bottom line: if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long?
Okay, let’s turn this around into a positive statement in the first person:
If you argue with me, call me names, tell me that I can’t stop you, say I’m a racist pig, threaten to sue me or tell me that you pay my salary, I will shoot you, tase you, pepper spray you, hit you with a baton or throw you to the ground.
Sounds a lot different, doesn’t it? But that’s exactly what he’s saying. He’s saying that police officers are justified in violently attacking someone who argues with them, calls them names or threatens to sue them. This is precisely the kind of person who should not be allowed to be a police officer. It’s this “I am the emperor, don’t you dare challenge me or I’ll beat you or kill you” attitude that must be stamped out.
I know it is scary for people to be stopped by cops. I also understand the anger and frustration if people believe they have been stopped unjustly or without a reason. I am aware that corrupt and bully cops exist. When it comes to police misconduct, I side with the ACLU: Having worked as an internal affairs investigator, I know that some officers engage in unprofessional and arrogant behavior; sometimes they behave like criminals themselves. I also believe every cop should use a body camera to record interactions with the community at all times. Every police car should have a video recorder. (This will prevent a situation like Mike Brown’s shooting, about which conflicting and self-serving statements allow people to believe what they want.) And you don’t have to submit to an illegal stop or search. You can refuse consent to search your car or home if there’s no warrant (though a pat-down is still allowed if there is cause for suspicion). Always ask the officer whether you are under detention or are free to leave. Unless the officer has a legal basis to stop and search you, he or she must let you go. Finally, cops are legally prohibited from using excessive force: The moment a suspect submits and stops resisting, the officers must cease use of force.
But if you believe (or know) that the cop stopping you is violating your rights or is acting like a bully, I guarantee that the situation will not become easier if you show your anger and resentment. Worse, initiating a physical confrontation is a sure recipe for getting hurt. Police are legally permitted to use deadly force when they assess a serious threat to their or someone else’s life. Save your anger for later, and channel it appropriately. Do what the officer tells you to and it will end safely for both of you. We have a justice system in which you are presumed innocent; if a cop can do his or her job unmolested, that system can run its course. Later, you can ask for a supervisor, lodge a complaint or contact civil rights organizations if you believe your rights were violated. Feel free to sue the police! Just don’t challenge a cop during a stop.
Funny how the only ones he expects to channel their anger appropriately are the ones not holding the guns, the tasers or the pepper spray. If someone initiates a physical confrontation with the police, the officer can do what it takes to subdue them. But how many times have we seen video of cops doing far more than is necessary to subdue someone? How many examples would you like? A hundred? A thousand? There are that many examples out there.
When we give someone the authority we give the police, we expect them to exercise that authority appropriately. It is never, ever appropriate for an officer to respond with physical violence to purely verbal behavior. And it is never appropriate for them to use deadly force when far less force would defuse the situation. And no, it is not the fault of the victim of that brutality, it is the fault of the one engaging in it.