In light of the horrific situation in Ferguson, an op-ed ran in today's Washington Post, chillingly titled, "I'm a cop. If you don't want to get hurt, don't challenge me." Not "obey the law." "Don't challenge me."
Here's a bit of what this upstanding public servant has to say:
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.
He even echoes Cartman, bemoaning "outright challenges to my authority."
The officer who wrote that claims to have worked in internal affairs, but that's a little difficult to swallow. After all, a man who knew that police officers will regularly produce badges before raping sex workers, or that over 10 percent of juvenile inmates report being sexually abused by jailers, would know better than to make a statement like, "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."
A more informed bottom line would go a little more something like this: when cops armed like an invading army force observers from Amnesty International to their knees, at gunpoint -- which happened in Ferguson the night before that piece ran -- they aren't enforcing the law, they are breaking it. They are criminals, they should lose their badges and they should be sued. They should not get to kill people without trial for walking aggressively.
That doesn't mean that, if confronted by a police officer acting inappropriately, a law-abiding citizen should do anything to escalate the situation. Be nice, stay calm, of course. Do not presume that what he or she is doing is actually illegal, unless you are damn certain that it is.
But this idea that cops get to say when and where constitutional rights apply is so very, deeply misguided that I am shocked anyone could type it out without coming to their senses mid-sentence. After all, if you want to get kicked off jury duty, the fastest way is just to say, "If the cops arrested her, she must have been doing something wrong." Our entire system of criminal justice is built around the idea that law enforcement officers are imperfect.
There's an experience I think every reporter has had, at least once: you are filming or photographing something, in public, and a police officer demands that you stop. It is not a request. It is a demand, made with some show of force. On the second demand, as if by training, they usually indicate that they are explicitly ordering you to stop. (A deputy sheriff once sped his SUV, parked about 20 feet away, toward me as a means of punctuating an "order." I had to jump out of its path.) He or she will likely threaten to take your camera, or arrest you.
It's hard for the average person to wrap their minds around the fact that this sort of thing is fairly commonplace. Most cops, like most people, are nice enough, and generally just trying to do their jobs. They have our respect, because they keep us safe by doing work that is more difficult and dangerous than most. I know a lot of fantastic cops, and I daresay they far outnumber the bad.
Still, I've been threatened by police officers, for doing my own job, on four occasions. Little ol' me, the last guy to cross against the light, without so much as a speeding ticket (still) on my record. In each of those cases, the police officer backed down after being calmly informed that he was a public person in a public space, with no reasonable expectation of privacy. You know, stuff he should already know. I've been lucky, I suppose. I've certainly never been arrested or tear-gassed.
What has always troubled me most about these incidents -- if you can believe it -- is the inescapable impression that officers really believe they have the right to issue these "orders," under threat of arrest. As if a law meant to allow cops to direct traffic somehow trumps the Bill of Rights. First Amendment? Fourth Amendment? They don't need no stinking constitution. They have guns and handcuffs. And I knew each time that the only reason I wasn't being arrested was because I came across as the type of person with means of recourse.
In Ferguson last week, reporters for the Washington Post and Huffington Post were arrested, essentially for being inside a McDonald's. When the police chief learned of the arrests, he blamed an officer "who didn't know better." Didn't know better than to arrest someone who wasn't committing a crime, or didn't know better than to arrest a reporter? False arrest, it seems, only happens to people of means.
And I keep coming back to this thought -- "though it might sound harsh and impolitic" -- that a great many people in law enforcement just don't know any better. It makes for a needlessly dangerous environment. 82 percent of police departments in the United States require only a high school diploma, in spite of the fact that higher levels of education have been shown to meaningfully reduce police brutality. The very fact that officer education levels are a key predictor of police brutality tells us that we cannot reasonably pin the blame on other people.
Still, what do we do when cops show they can't handle the demands of their job? Do we educate them? No. We arm them. Because bad decisions are made so much better with deadly weapons. Police in New Mexico, Oklahoma and South Carolina are being gifted Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicles, as if they need and are prepared to use them. What the hell is a cop in Oklahoma going to do with an MRAP but overreact? Landmines are not a big problem in Tulsa.
To put this in perspective: police in Ireland, Norway and New Zealand don't even carry guns. Over 80 percent of police in Britain say they don't even want them!
In the United States, however, we are currently left with a deadly mix of peaceful protests, violent agitators and over-armed cops enacting the scene of a government at war with its people. A cop shot the suspect in a $50 cigar heist six times, and law enforcement's response has been tear gas, batons and bullets. Playing soldier.
So forgive me if I have a hard time accepting it when a cop cries that the real problem is the challenge to his authority.