Sunil Dutta, a 17-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department and adjunct instructor of homeland security at Colorado Technical University, has a suggestion for victims of police violence searching for someone to blame: Look in the mirror.
In a column published Tuesday in The Washington Post titled, "I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me," Dutta responds to mounting criticism of the policing tactics on display in Ferguson, Missouri, amid the hyper-militarization of law enforcement and accusations that officers have violated the First Amendment rights of both demonstrators and journalists covering the events. In a particularly telling passage, Dutta argues that citizens could deter police brutality if they were simply more cooperative, even when they're unjustly targeted.
"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," he writes. "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?"
It's worth noting that arguing with a cop and even verbally abusing one, as well as asking for a badge number, are not illegal actions, though they have been known to lead to punishment or arrest. Dutta goes on to admit that police officers aren't perfect and some have been known to be corrupt bullies, but he says your best bet is to swallow your pride, stay quiet and submit to any unlawful actions by police.
"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," he writes. Dutta goes on to encourage people to seek legal recourse after the fact, rather than protest at the time of the encounter. Of course, an April 2014 poll found that half of Americans don't believe cops are held accountable for misconduct, so that likely won't be much solace to most people.
Dutta also claims that you can simply exercise a number of rights, and decline to submit to an illegal stop or search or question a cop's legal basis to search you -- as if those behaviors will automatically ward off an officer.
The column's general premise was never in doubt. Of course it's true that one way to avoid escalating a confrontation with a hot-headed or misbehaving cop is to follow orders or shut up, even if your rights are being trampled.
But it's concerning that Dutta, an officer who both admits structural problems with police behavior and has called for reforms -- including an overhaul of internal investigations and the use of officer-mounted cameras to record interactions with citizens -- appears so unsympathetic to citizens who are growing increasingly intolerant of police abuse.
As J.D. Tucille, managing editor of Reason.com, writes, the tone of Dutta's column reveals that he is ignorant of the broader concerns expressed by police critics:
If you have the attitude that you are owed deference and instant obedience by the people around you, and that you are justified in using violence against them if they don't comply, we already have a problem. That's especially true if official institutions back you up, which they do.
If you really think that everybody else should "just do what I tell you," you're wearing the wrong uniform in the wrong country. And if you really can't function with some give and take—a few nasty names, a little argument—of the sort that people in all sorts of jobs put up with every damned day, do us all a favor: quit.
Dutta is no doubt correct in claiming that being a cop is a difficult and dangerous job, and that the overwhelming majority of officers are not eager to use their service weapons on anyone, unarmed or not. But in the face of countless instances of officers harassing, abusing and brutalizing suspects far beyond the limits of department policy, it is unfair -- and even un-American -- to suggest that "not the cops, but the people they stop" are primarily responsible for avoiding this harsh and often illegal treatment.
This story has been updated to include more exact information about the nature of Dutta's role at Colorado Technical University. A representative for the institution later clarified that Dutta is not currently teaching and that his views are his own and do not reflect the views of the university in any way.