When animals attack

>> Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Janiece Murphy points us to this Washington Post editorial by Sunil Dutta, "I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me," and to commentary by James Joyner and Ken White.  You're fully and completely linked up in this paragraph, but I'm not sure you actually need to read Dutta's piece, for which the Post's editors deserve full credit for producing the most complete and accurate headline I've ever seen in the history of anything.  As for Joyner's and White's comments, suffice it to say they don't like what Dutta has to say.

Nor do I, but I also have to point out that as an assistant public defender, I've given the exact same spiel Dutta does to clients, friends, family members, concerned citizens, random people I've just encountered, and possibly to Elvis.  Not that I've enjoyed agreeing with Professor Dutta, my personal feelings being much in line with Messrs. Joyner and White on the subject.

It's just that Dutta is, of course, right, though it verges on astonishing that he's so blasé about why he's right.  There's no doubt that challenging a cop is a good way to get hurt, or killed, or just arrested and charged with some routine horseshit like Disorderly Conduct, Obstructing Justice, Resisting an Officer, or whatever else your local jurisdiction and the officer want to call it.  Police officers in the United States carry guns.  And handcuffs.  And Tasers.  And pepper spray.  And nightsticks.  And those little ninjalike mini-nightsticks they've been trained to jam into your pressure points in especially painful ways.  They can kill you or seriously hurt you with any of these things, and then they have paperwork on hand that they can use to have your hardship, suffering and/or death written up as being Officially Your Own Goddamn Fault.

In short, the average police officer is fully capable of seriously injuring you and then having you arrested for having to have been fully injured, and then you can go to jail or possibly even prison for having been injured, or possibly just pay a fine for having been injured, and/or you might be required to make regular visits to a probation or parole officer and do probationary things like pee in jars and undergo psychiatric evaluation for having been injured.

And even if you're lucky, and you're somehow vindicated, or at least let off the hook by a prosecutor who thinks the cop overdid it, you might still sit in jail for a bit awaiting bail or trial, you'll most likely have to spend lots and lots of time visiting the courthouse, you're out of pocket on attorney's fees if you hired a lawyer, you perhaps made the local paper's arrests-and-bookings page, and anyone doing a criminal record check sees you were charged with something (which they may hold against you even if your record clearly states that you were acquitted or your charges dismissed).  All of which is still insult on top of injury, even if it's not as grave an insult or further injury as having a conviction and all its attendant consequences inflicted upon you.

It's easier, if you can pull it off, to just avoid eye contact and say "Yessir" a lot and do a jive and shuffle for the nice policeman.  I say "if you can pull it off" because frankly if you're black there's some chance you'll be charged or arrested anyway, because that's just the state of the union circa 2014.  It's getting better, Ferguson, MO notwithstanding, but we aren't there yet and I don't know how long it's going to take to get the rest of the way.  Sorry.

But the best way to avoid getting your ass kicked and then you get charged or arrested if you weren't killed, is to treat cops like they're very dangerous animals.  Not because cops are animals, not because all cops are very dangerous ones, but because you just have no way of knowing who you're dealing with, and any probability greater than zero is bad odds when the end scenario involves you being shot up to hell and then accused of charging the officer because you may or may not have been involved in some kind of robbery or larceny at a local convenience store that the officer may or may not have known about when he began pulling the trigger over and over again.

She says "on these streets, Charles
You've got to understand the rules
If an officer stops you
Promise you'll always be polite,
that you'll never ever run away
Promise Mama you'll keep your hands in sight"

The rub is that my advice for dealing with law enforcement officers is about the same as my advice for dealing with rattlesnakes, or feral dogs, or a really mean looking bear.  Assume the creature is dangerous and not very bright, and prone to interpreting anything you do as a threat.  Do not make expressive gestures.  Back away slowly unless the creature starts making noises that indicate the movement is disturbing to it.  Terminate the contact as quickly as possible.  None of which is the advice I'd like to give anyone about dealing with police: what I'd like to tell people is that they can treat police officers the way they'd treat Andy Taylor--this one, the one from Mayberry, not this one, from Duran Duran.  Though I don't think you need to worry about the one from Double-D too much.  I'd like to be able to advise people that you can shoot the shit with the police, talk about guitar playing and whether the fish are biting, and the finer points of being a single father and how the folks are doing and the secret of Aunt Bee's fried chicken, but instead I have to advise people that wild animals may bite or maul and they can cause lingering illnesses even when their attacks aren't immediately fatal.

I think this sucks.

Not just because it offends the civil libertarian in my soul, or because somewhere in my decayed, cynical, bitter and disappointed heart there's still the kid who admired Woody Guthrie's fascist-killing machine and The Clash.  It does, it offends me to pieces that you might have to kiss the ass of a cryptofascist making demands on behalf of his auth-or-i-tai.  But, you know, it's also a situation that just sucks, that's just toxic and corrosive for everyone.  It can't be good for civil order or even for common decency that you need to fear cops (yes, even if you're white: bullets don't discriminate), and hell, it's bloody unfair that those guys who join law enforcement and remain decent and try to do the right thing have to be treated like brute beasts because they have brothers on the force who would bite someone right to the bone as soon as look at them if given opportunity and a poor excuse.  

Wouldn't we all agree that The Andy Griffith Show,, if extrapolated for greater racial diversity than a '50s TV show about the American South was willing or able to portray, offers a kind of Platonic ideal of law enforcement practice?  It's fantasy, of course: I don't think policing was ever like that.  But fantasies guide our aspirations and offer our cautionary tales, and certainly the idea that unarmed community policing by nice guys with a lot of common sense is something we might navigate by even if its as impracticable an actual destination as The Shire, or Narnia.  I.e. we're not making the case that the Andy Taylor Policing System is a viable model for law enforcement, with it's unarmed Sheriff and one-bullet deputy in a town with a single stoplight and probable conflict-of-interest issues arising from the consolidation of the Sheriff's and Magistrate's office, merely suggesting we all might benefit if more police officers looked to Sheriff Taylor as a role model in much the same way so many young lawyers, say for instance, fancy they're going to be Atticus Finches.

In any event, it's sort of unfathomable that Professor Dutta evidently wants to embrace a model of the world suggested by weary defense lawyers who think citizens' encounters with police ought to proceed in much the same way as a hiker's encounter with a mountain lion: with distance and deference due to a hostile and powerful predator.  Dutta writes, "For you, this might be a 'simple' traffic stop, for me each traffic stop is a potentially dangerous encounter"; well, indeed, I view a 'simple' traffic stop as a potentially dangerous encounter, too.  But the respect I show a grizzly bear--or a traffic cop--isn't the kind of respect any mentally healthy adult human being ought to be seeking.  It's the respect you give to things that can kill you on a whim, and however heady an empowerment it might seem to a shallow and narcissistic personality type, it's mostly dehumanizing.


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