“I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me.”
That is the title to a lovely piece by in the Washington Post by Sunil Dutta and as I read it, my jaw dropped. Seriously? There’s so much wrong with that statement. I don’t know if there are any old adages to not judge an article by its title but this one would prove that so wrong. From the title, I thought this would be a horrendous op/ed but instead it became horrifying and so much worse than I ever could have imagined from the title alone.
The real kicker for me is the following paragraph-
“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.”
Now don’t get me wrong – I have worked with quite a few police officers and I don’t know how they do it. They see scary sh*t – like really scary sh*t all the time and their jobs are really dangerous. I also have worked with some police officers who were tremendously brilliant, socially just, self-aware and compassionate. If only the majority of officers were like that! But brilliant or not, police do dangerous work. Heck, I know a lot about domestic violence and batterers and I know how scary batterers can be and that a small percentage of them aren’t afraid to turn their abusive behavior on a responding officer (for examples see here and here).
So I believe police officers need to be able to defend themselves. The examples I linked to above are times when unfortunately a police officer may need to use weapons. HOWEVER, insinuating you will taser or shoor anyone who calls you a name or in some way mocks you is completely unacceptable. Yes it’s awful to be verbally abused and it is not condonable behavior but it does not require potentially lethal defense either.
Sunil Dutta ends this charming paragraph by saying “Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long?” The fact that he so nonchalantly implies he’ll use violence when someone hurts his feelings and then ends that thought with a horribly condescending remark comes off as ludicrously entitled, to me. It is not okay to think you have the right to hurt someone who hurts you. To me, this logic is not any different than the logic used by Elliot Rodger when he killed women who rejected him. Are the circumstances different? Yes – police do work with the public and their work is dangerous whereas Elliot did neither of these things at present. But their belief system seems similar, which is that they seem to believe you have the right to be violent when your ego is bruised and that is a very dangerous mentality.
Not to mention that police officers are not the only people who do dangerous work. Violence, including murder has been documented against social workers. As a social worker, have I ever felt scared or that my safety was compromised while at work? Absolutely. As a social worker, do I show up to work armed and ready to fire at anyone who insults me? Absolutely not. Nurses, teachers and countless other professions are also at risk of workplace violence and yet we don’t believe we have the right to hurt others, especially just because they insult us.
And yes, race impacts police work, often to the benefit of white people and to the detriment of people of color. Sunil Dutta is a man of color and so on an individual level, he can’t be racist in the way white people can be (see white privilege). However, when he’s in uniform, he represents an agency with immense power that in theory serves to protect us all but in reality protects white people the most, perhaps in particular white, straight men. Police serve and protect a deeply racist society. And the thing about institutional racism is that as white people, we are especially unaware of our own racism and how it impacts us. The messages we get about races are so insidious and commonplace that we often don’t recognize them nor do we realize the ways they’ve leeched onto our beliefs. We are taught to view black men as dangerous. And so it is plausible that police officers may feel unnecessarily threatened by a black man because of subconscious, automatic beliefs they has that tell them that this person is a threat simply because of who they are and not because of how they act. And then police officers may respond accordingly and treat that individual as though they are a threat.
Who knows what happened with Darren Wilson? I wasn’t in Ferguson on August 9th so I can’t know exactly what happened and I certainly wasn’t in Darren Wilson’s head to know what he was thinking. But the reality is he killed someone who was unarmed. Is it possible that his own racism clouded his judgment and made him react differently towards Michael Brown, a young African American male? I think it is definitely possible. If in the end, we learn that there really was no reason for Officer Wilson to take this action then I believe we need to think seriously about the response. The best way society can end institutional racism is to hold white people accountable to their racism and its subsequent harms. That means, that we will face consequences if we hurt someone based upon their race – even if our actions stem from deep-seated beliefs we aren’t aware of. Because aware or not, the beliefs are there and they are hurting others.