Well, spring is upon us, and that means increased travel, increased outdoors activities, and recovery from cabin fever. People get outside, drive more, there are more birthdays in spring and school is winding down. And it’s no coincidence that, at this time of year, police activity increases, and the phones begin to ring more here at the Law Office of Alex DeMarco.
Dominating the headlines some weeks ago was the story of a United Airlines Passenger who was injured in the process of being forcibly removed from a flight. In the fallout from the whole affair, the overwhelming consensus was that this brutality was unjustified and unnecessary. Yet a small select handful of individuals continued to defend the airline and the officers involved, repeating the familiar ring, “if he’d only complied, this would not be a problem.” This represents a profound divide in our society, a new partisanship, if you will. A divide between those who can handle some minor disorder while maintaining freedom, and those who need absolute predictability, even if that means disproportionate violence on every single individual who does not do as they are told.
Police Violence, Not Just for Crimes Anymore
Dr. David Dao had committed no crime. By all accounts, he had lawfully purchased a flight like any other traveler. Announcements were made offering for passengers to “voluntarily” give up their seats for an incentive. He refused. He paid for that seat. He had a right to be there. Because of United Airlines’ inability to do math and their incentive to simply grab more money, he was ordered to leave. He refused. But it was not United Airlines who ultimately forced him to leave. For any civilian to physically grab, beat, and eject someone would be a crime. It would be assault. Enter the immunity of the badge. He was ultimately removed by members of the “Chicago Department of Aviation”, a division of the Chicago Police Department. Dr. Dao suffered a bloody head injury, concussion, and missing teeth. The chaos and disorder of that moment for all on the flight is palpable. And yet, it was in the name of “order”, a failure to “comply” with commercial demands, that he was ultimately brutalized. This very high-profile story is but a symptom of a much much larger problem, and that is, we rely on police officers to solve the majority of problems that we used to solve ourselves.
Armed Officers Are in Nearly Every Public School In America
An example is school discipline. For nearly all of our nation’s existence right up through the 1990’s, police officers on duty at school were unheard of. To this day, there are no police officers in private schools, and yet there doesn’t seem to be more violence, drugs, or criminal issues in those schools where officers never set foot until they are called. What DOES seem to occur more in public schools with officers present? Escalation and violence. Recently, we have had several incidents of police brutality in schools, against children. Some of these incidents have occurred at the hands of the same officer at the same school. These are just the latest in a string of lamentable actions in which supposedly disobedient children have been brutalized, seized, or harassed or threatened by officers. A very shorty, non-exhaustive list is below:
A Distorted View of Police, and the Police Narrative that Reinforces it.
This represents a larger problem in America, the supposed land of the free and home of the brave. There are two competing narratives that are both misplaced. One narrative says that our police departments are comprised of increasingly “bad apples.” Hot heads, paranoid, bent on violence. Other incidents provoke a dialogue regarding an alleged prolific racism among officers. The developed counter-narrative by law enforcement itself has only harmed them more. The message of police unions and chiefs, without equivocation, has been that if you just obey police officers, then you can’t get hurt. Therefore everyone injured by police officers suffers a demise solely of their own making. That is not a hyperbolic take on their position. It is plainly stated by them, and it does a grave disservice to the beat cops that actually work for a living. If this is not the sentiment of all individual officers, at the very least, it is a clearly unified message of collective voices in the leadership of law enforcement. Moreover, it is a part of officer training. A non-exhaustive list of such sentiments can be found below:
” 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. ” That’s not just from any officer, that’s from a 17 year veteran of the Los Angeles Police department and Professor of Homeland Security and Criminal Justice at Colorado Technical University.
“I do not want to have to shoot somebody, but ultimately the force decision is up to the suspect. What I would like for them to do is comply with my commands and they’re under arrest and nobody gets hurt.” Adam Duncan, Primary at the Law Enforcement Training Institute in Columbia, Ohio.
In direct response to the brutalized girl at her desk in South Carolina above: ”
If the reader will pardon the crude analogy, this is talk of thugs and gangster rap. “Do what I say, and nobody gets hurt” is exactly what one would expect a robber or other miscreants to say during a stick up. Most recently, this was seen in the killing of 15 year old Jordan Edwards in Texas. A group of teenagers was actually trying to escape gunfire, and were shot by responding police whose duty it supposedly was to protect them from gunfire. I know police officers. I know them well. This is not how most of them think or act, and it’s disgusting that people of such notoriety are speaking for them. And the media promotes these voices, and extreme counter-voices, in order to create division and ratings. So this is a hard pill to swallow. It’s a bitter drink, but I’m going to serve it to you ice cold. “Racist” or power-hungry cops are not the issue. YOU and your neighbors are to blame, over the course of years, even decades. You created this mandate, slowly.
THE REAL PROBLEM
People want to pass blame to officers and municipalities, and while reforms could certainly be made, the reality is we as a society have made this problem. I’m reminded of my days as a public defender. As a public defender, you do not get to choose your cases. You’re assigned cases. You are not assigned petty violations that can only result in fines. It has to be a misdemeanor or greater offense, punishable by actual jail time. Minnesota, in its infinite wisdom, has allowed municipalities to manufacture misdemeanor crimes. So for example, the city of Northfield, in Rice County, has made “loud dog” a misdemeanor offense, technically punishable by 90 days in jail or a $1,000 fine or both. To be clear, the reality is that no judge in Rice County would actually sentence a defendant to 90 days…or likely any jail time at all…for a “loud dog.” But I once carried a “loud dog” case to trial once just to prove a point. In that case, the officer had inquired of the complaining neighbor, who by the time of the actual incident date had now called the police several times, “have you ever gone and spoken to your neighbor about the issue?” The reply was “no.” Therein lies the central problem, really and truly, in in our police violence dialogue. The reality is…we’re an anti-social, wimpy society that can’t even talk to our neighbors about loud dogs. Instead of actually talking to our neighbor, we call the gun and the badge. And that’s what we’ve done to EVERYTHING.
Student won’t shut her phone off in class? Call the police…who we now keep in full-time offices right down the hall. We put them there to protect against school shootings. They now write daily reports on stolen book bags and locker room fights. Out tail light on a car? We mandate police make those stops, and sometimes those stops have dire consequences. Overbooked flights? ARE YOU LISTENING? For overbooked commercial flights, we now call in the force of head-breakers to handle THAT. Think about it. The problem isn’t that we have amped-up officers, racist officers, or any of that. To be sure, there ARE racist police officers, but in my experience, there are no more racists on a police force than any other profession. To be certain, law enforcement cannot be expected to be error-free. Mistakes will be made. The difference is that no other profession arms people this heavily, grants them such immunity, and hands them such broad mandates. It’s not like a racist restaurant owner refusing service. It’s not like a waitress that screws up your order. It’s far more consequential than that. We have a force of police, in Minnesota and in most states, that is armed to the hilt. Nearly every city officer, County Deputy, and State Trooper, is armed with four weapons on their belt (Pistol, Baton, Chemical Spray, Taser) and two more in their squad (shotgun and AR-15). We have the effect of a paramilitary force roving the streets, looking not for IED’s or insurgents, but for any number of 100 some equipment or traffic violations, from a license plate with no illumination, to a cracked windshield. The exact same public servants with the same weapons who respond to “shots fired”, domestic assaults, burglaries, and rapes, are simultaneously or on a subsequent shift, patrolling for traffic violations, policing schools, responding to “loud dogs” and, yes, even enforcing arbitrary airline seating policies. This is not sustainable. The problem isn’t simply a few bad police officers. It’s the training we implement combined with the broad, nearly limitless mandate we hand to them, that invariably leads to hundreds of civilian interactions each day in Minnesota and throughout the country. It is often said that the mere presence of a gun can escalate any confrontation. That is no less true of police than civilians, and indeed, it is likely a more substantial risk. If you combine such daily, hourly interactions with heavy weapons, and a mindset that says “every traffic stop could be your last” and throw in the “obey or get shot” mentality above, you’ve set up a recipe for frequent and sustained violence.
It’s easy to blame police or public officials, but the fact is, we brought this on ourselves. We have done this in response to particular events that terrified us. After Columbine, we decided we needed police in all schools to protect our kids from the unthinkable. But now we have them write reports on every locker-room fight over a girl, every report of a stolen i-pod, every sighting of a joint on school grounds, every passing of an adderall capsule. Now we need police to respond to loud dog and music “complaints” because we can’t talk to our neighbors. Now we need police to fulfill purely commercial agendas on airlines. We’ve ceased interacting, teaching, disciplining, negotiating, and we’ve relied on the gun and badge to solve all of our problems, right down to incorrect fast food orders. (I’m no joking. Click on it).
The real problem is we’ve demanded too much of the badge. In a nation that allegedly prides itself on individualism and freedom, we’ve made ourselves dependent on police for loud animals, loose animals, disputes of virtually any kind, school disruption and noisy neighbors, something UNHEARD OF just 30 years ago. In the land of the free, we have over 25% of the world’s incarcerated population, the majority of whom are serving time for non-violent crime. We have state criminal codes thousands of pages long that make it virtually impossible to maneuver a vehicle for more than five minutes without engaging in some conduct that “justifies” a stop by a police officer. No other nation in the world does this. No other nation has a constant roving band of officers each armed with six weapons pulling over people for cracked windshields, and then responding to adrenaline fueled “shots fired” calls, and then back to patrol. No other nation has anywhere near the issue with police violence that we have. With all the focus on number of children killed in accidental gun deaths, and all the talk of violence, nobody wants to address the fact that, as of this writing just shy of 400 people have been killed by police, and that the minority of them were armed. The reality is nearly all of those deaths were avoidable. Unnecessary. “Justified” or not, plenty of similar situations have resulted in people NOT dying. And then we wonder why people are protesting, blocking traffic, and we can suddenly propose laws nationwide to deal with pesky “protesters”, but not actually address what our public servants are assigned to do in our name and whether it might be worth changing considering that FIVE Minnesota officers are currently being prosecuted for crimes committed on duty. We haven’t even fathomed a change to how we police, but we’ve proposed taking money from those voicing opposition to it, and redistributing to…wait for it…the police department. It’s deplorable. The lack of response and advancement on this issue should anger every American. And yet, in the spirit of this article, we can at least start to perhaps rely on ourselves in in the interim.
The small thing you can do right now.
The next time the music is too loud next door, or the dog is barking, the next time you suspect “drug activity” because of late night automobile activity, the next time a student is being disobedient, or, god help us, your burger order is wrong etc. etc., know that the power to ever so slightly reduce an emergin police state is in your hands. Talk to people. Interact like people. Don’t call the police. Know that police are not there to solve disputes. They aren’t there for your convenience. They are there to intervene, write reports, and forward them to charging authorities. Calling a person with a veritable arsenal should be limited to those circumstances where your safety is immediately and profoundly compromised. While it is true police have mandates that authorize them to respond to most any call, YOU have control over that call. We have lots of changes to make as a society, but like most of those changes, it starts with YOU. Are you free? Are you an American? Are you gutsy enough to confront your neighbor over a loud dog? Or are you just another hands-off anonymous caller relying on the state to solve your problems? That choice is yours.