On NPR’s Weekend Edition on Sunday, December 7, 2014, host Rachel Martin interviewed three veteran police officers (two white, one black) from Columbus, Ohio, a city in which the department had been accused in the past of police officers routinely conducting illegal searches and using excessive force. She also spoke with Malik Aziz who is chairman of the National Black Police Association.
All her conversations were about whether racism was a factor in the way that police dealt with the public and how things might be reformed. All her guests advanced the ‘few bad apples’ defense, that what we were witnessing were the isolated actions of a few individuals and not representative of a systemic problem, and that part of the blame had to lie with the victims for causing the deaths by their own behavior. To her credit, Martin pushed back against this attempt to blame the victims.
MARTIN: It’s clear listening to protesters and policeman that they believe that there is a flawed relationship. But does one side bear more responsibility than the other? I mean, it is the police who carry guns. It is the police who are charged to protect and serve.
AZIZ: I would say it’s still 50-50. I say that any situation can be quelled by the person who’s being approached if you would do just eight things. And that is keep your hands where the police can see them and don’t run and God forbid, don’t touch any police officer, him or his weapon. Do not resist, do not complain too strongly. Ask for a lawyer, record the officer’s name and badge number or his card number and try to find any witnesses. If you follow those things, your interaction with the police, your time to battle any wrongdoing that you think may have occurred will come after that interaction.
MARTIN: So in light of that, how much responsibility did Eric Garner bear in that particular situation that led to his death?
AZIZ: I can tell you if you find yourself surrounded by four or five police, you are not going to have a good day. So at any point in time, Mr. Garner could have said hey, I don’t want any trouble with you guys and he could’ve turned around, put his hands behind his back. No, what happened to Mr. Garner should not have happened. I’ll be clear when I say that. But I can tell you that if he would’ve just did that thing right there, than we could’ve talked to him and we could address those officers and their policing style and what they were doing on the street that day.
MARTIN: You’re saying that in a situation, the onus is on the public, the onus is on the individual to do as they’re told and to make sure that their behavior isn’t provoking police, that it’s somehow their fault.
AZIZ: Well, I don’t think that provokes police or not. I think what I’m saying in certain cases, when you realize that you’re having a negative experience and you can control the outcome of that experience, then you should do so. If you understand the dos and the don’ts, how is the police officer in control?
MARTIN: But you’re saying that for now then, African-American families have to live with a double-standard.
AZIZ: Well, African-Americans who are very smart and love their children and want to proceed, then they must realize that there’s a small percentage of officers out there who have gotten by psychological testing and background checks and who may not be operating in the same manner, so treat everybody with respect and survive that encounter. Yes, I’m saying that. And I’m hoping for a better day where we’re going to stand in unity and somebody is going to look back on these days and say oh man, we came a long way.
Again we see the assumption that people should grovel before the police and not say or do anything that might annoy them. This is the kind of behavior that characterizes authoritarian states, where the public is supposed to meekly cower before the agents of state power. This view was expressed even more starkly by a former member of the Los Angeles Police Department that has one of the worst reputations in the nation for outright racism.
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. 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?
That says it all. We ordinary people, but especially people of color and the poor, should fear the police and modify our behavior and treat the police as our overlords and act as if they are trigger-happy, unstable people who are justified in shooting us for making the slightest wrong step. But why should we be the only ones who learn to practice caution in this relationship? The police are public servants whose mission is to protect and serve us, not an invading force. People who support authoritarianism say that we should ‘respect the law’ but what they really mean is that we should fear the law. People would respect the law a lot more if its representatives did not behave like an invading army quelling a rebellious foreign country.
In the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, we have heard repeated calls for greater training of police. But what kind of training? I don’t know what training police cadets currently receive (maybe some readers know) but it should have a component where police officers have to listen to all manner of abuse short of being physically threatened, and learn how to take it calmly. They should learn to distinguish between the venting of anger at them and real threats. They have to do so because lack of deference to authority, offensive speech, and obnoxious behavior that is not criminal are constitutionally protected acts that have to be endured and not be the basis for violent police retaliation.
Acts of lèse-majesté should not be crimes.