I’ve worked closely with police officers my entire professional life, and I find most to be decent, honorable men and women who do a difficult job with a surprising amount of professionalism. I’m far from anti-cop. But sometimes it appears obvious that breaking the law isn’t what will get you arrested. Simply disobeying a police officer, even with the right to do so, might do it.
That’s anathema to the rule of law.
A disturbing video posted by the African-American political and cultural opinion magazine “The Root” shows a black man arguing with police officers, one male and one female and both white, in St. Paul, Minnesota in January and eventually being tasered and then arrested. It’s news again in light of recent events, and race is an assumed factor. At one point in his filming of the incident, the man interrupts the female officer and says “the problem is I’m black.” The two are then joined by a male officer who immediately demands that he put his hands behind his back. A struggle ensues, he’s tasered and then arrested.
I honestly don’t know if race was a factor for the officers involved. I’d like to think it wasn’t, but I completely understand those who most certainly do. Regardless, what bothered me most about the exchange I saw was simply the illegality of what seems to be happening. Apparently charges against the man for trespass, disorderly conduct and disrupting the legal process were dropped.
Understanding that cell phone video is hardly an infallible source of context in a tense situation, watching this one will not yield a single explanation by the officers as to why the man is being arrested that cites Minnesota law or local ordinance. I watched it repeatedly; I don’t hear it. Reports suggest a store clerk called with some concern about his presence as a possible loiterer although he was in a public place. The responding officer demands he identify himself. He refuses, as is apparently his right under Minnesota law. She appears to follow him as he walks away, at one point explaining her demand saying “this is what police officers do when they’re called.”
That may be, but that doesn’t make the demand legal. And if it’s not legal, and no other crime is occurring, she needs to shrug and walk away. Period. But police officers increasingly seem not to want to do that.
In February, a California Highway Patrolman arrested a firefighter who refused to move a fire truck at the patrolman’s insistence while working a car wreck. The firefighter was ordered released and later filed a complaint. Details are in dispute, but it seems as if he was handcuffed and placed in a cruiser simply because he disobeyed the command of the CHP, regardless of the letter of the law.
Like any institution that provides for trappings of authority, deadly weapons and combat training, police agencies sometimes attract bullies and others with big egos and little patience. I believe this is not the norm in American policing but generally an exception. I’ve not only worked closely with cops all of my life, I’ve befriended many. I’ve heard countless head-shaking stories (that never reach the media) of cops who have not used deadly force despite the actions of belligerent and aggressive people who threaten their lives and refuse to obey reasonable commands.
Still, there is justifiable criticism being leveled against the militarization of American police forces and the rise of the “warrior cop.” Engaging the community from behind barricades with automatic weapons is largely counterproductive and stupid. But what’s worse is ignoring the law and putting people in chains and cages- regardless for how long or to what eventual end- simply because they’ve made a cop angry. It doesn’t work that way. It can’t work that way.
As a young prosecutor I practiced before an old and quirky but wonderful judge named Dan O’Flaherty. He showed me once how he kept a copy of Virginia’s contempt of court statute (the one that allows judges to jail people on the spot for in-court behavior) actually taped to the bench where he sat. His reason? When he was insulted or otherwise disrespected by someone before him, he took time to read the statute and think very carefully before even threatening the person with contempt. Because sometimes what they were doing was infuriating, but not illegal.
Anyone with the honor of wielding a badge and a gun needs to understand that as well.