I have been fortunate enough to have had very few encounters with the police in my life. I don’t think that I am any more well-behaved than most people, but I do have the societal advantages of white skin and growing up in the suburbs. Many other people do not, and therefore their interactions with the police are far more numerous, and far more potentially dangerous. And, based on what they have seen and experienced they have grown distrustful of cops. After reading things like this, and after what I keep seeing on the news, I can’t say that I blame them.
Sunil Dutta, a LAPD officer, believes that there is an easy solution to police violence: just do whatever they tell you to do. He says:
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?
At least he concedes that most people don’t want to get tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground. But, you know what else people don’t want? They don’t want to get harassed by entitled police officers who abuse their power and disproportionately target minorities.
While it might be easy for Officer Dutta to suggest that the people he stop just do what he tells them, it is far more difficult for people to follow that suggestion when they are stopped repeatedly and for no reason. If Dutta was stopped while walking down the street just because of the color of his skin, would he be so quick to comply? How about the second time it happened, or the third? How about if it happened all the time? At what point is it okay to resist an unjust system? At what point is it okay NOT to cooperate? Even if a stop is “complete in minutes,” would he agree to be stripped of his dignity for that long? Would he stand by and watch others suffer the same humiliation?
You don’t know what is in my mind when I stop you. Did I just get a radio call of a shooting moments ago? Am I looking for a murderer or an armed fugitive? For you, this might be a “simple” traffic stop, for me each traffic stop is a potentially dangerous encounter. Show some empathy for an officer’s safety concerns. Don’t make our job more difficult than it already is.
The officer would be wise to listen to his own advice. He could stand to show some empathy himself. He does not know what is in the mind of the person being stopped any more than they know what is in his. Is this person a victim of a police force that abuses its power and targets certain segments of the community? Is he marked as a suspect in that shooting or murder Dutta just got a call about simply because of his clothing or skin color? Does he live in a world where no traffic stop is ever really “simple?” Is he part of a community where the potential danger far too often is for the one who is stopped? While Dutta’s job may truly be difficult, he is speaking to people whose entire lives are difficult, largely because of a society that wants them to just comply while it continues to abuse and humiliate them.
Dutta goes on:
Community members deserve courtesy, respect and professionalism from their officers. Every person stopped by a cop should feel safe instead of feeling that their wellbeing is in jeopardy. Shouldn’t the community members extend the same courtesy to their officers and project that the officer’s safety is not threatened by their actions?
What if the community members don’t receive the courtesy, respect and professionalism they deserve? What if they don’t feel safe? What if their well-being is in jeopardy? Mike Brown’s certainly was. And, I don’t think the bullets that killed him came with any courtesy or respect.
Communities have entrusted their police forces with certain powers. But, regardless of what Officer Dutta seems to think, their responsibility is to the community. They are public servants, trusted to protect the communities they work for. And, yes, that sometimes means using force when necessary. But, that does not mean they have license to use force whenever they want. And, as citizens see their police forces behave like an occupying army, they get the urge to resist. And, when the police are not held accountable for their misdeeds, that urge grows. And, when they see one of their own shot down by the very people tasked with protecting them, they cry out.
Dutta addresses this use of force:
[C]ops are legally prohibited from using excessive force: The moment a suspect submits and stops resisting, the officers must cease use of force.
This is great, in theory, but reality shows that this is simply not true. Mike Brown submitted. He did not resist. By all accounts, he had his hands raised in surrender. He was shot and killed and left to lie in the street. And, he is not alone.
Dutta says, “cops are not murderers.” But, sometimes they are. And, when nothing is done, it makes it that much easier for the next cop to shoot and kill the next unarmed black man walking down the street, and that much harder for people to just do what they are told.