Another day, another unarmed person dies in police custody. This time it is a black woman Sandra Bland who is the victim when a traffic stop for what is a minor offense ends up with the police officer seemingly taking umbrage because she did not cower sufficiently before him, resulting in him assaulting her and throwing her in jail for three days before she was found dead in her cell. The authorities claim it was suicide but it is being investigated. It should be noted that the county where this occurred is notorious for being racist.
The officer first pulls her over because she changed lanes without signaling but the mitigating factors are that she had just gone from a single lane road to a two-lane one and the police car was behind her and she said she changed lanes to allow the police car to pass. Although she was clearly irritated, the situation was under control until the police officer asked her to put out her cigarette which she refused to do. At which point the police officer got angry and ordered her out of the car and then forcibly restrained her and she ended up in jail and dead. As one law professor said in this NPR interview, Bland seemed to be arrested for the crime of ‘contempt of cop’, by refusing to get rid of the cigarette, something that Seth Staughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and a former police officer, says that she was perfectly entitled to do.
Staughton wrote back in April before the Bland death that the problem is the fear-based warrior mentality that is inculcated into recruits during police training and that makes the police feel that every person they meet is a potential assailant and that they must establish absolute control over them.
In this worldview, officers are warriors combatting unknown and unpredictable—but highly lethal—enemies. They learn to be afraid. Officers don’t use that word, of course. Vigilant, attentive, cautious, alert, or observant are the terms that appear most often in police publications. But officers learn to be vigilant, attentive, cautious, alert, and observant because they are afraid, and they afraid because they’re taught to be.
As a result, officers learn to treat every individual they interact with as an armed threat and every situation as a deadly force encounter in the making. Every individual, every situation — no exceptions. A popular police training text offers this advice: “As you approach any situation, you want to be in the habit of looking for cover so you can react automatically to reach it should trouble erupt.” A more recent article puts it even more bluntly: “Remain humble and compassionate; be professional and courteous — and have a plan to kill everyone you meet.”
Counterintuitively, the warrior mentality also makes policing less safe for both officers and civilians. Officers learn to both verbally and physically control the space they operate in. They learn that it is essential to set the proper tone for an encounter, and the tone that best preserves officer safety is widely thought to be one of “unquestioned command.” Even acting friendly, officers are told, can make them a target. But like the use of physical force, the assertive manner in which officers set the tone of encounter can also set the stage for a negative response or a violent interaction—one that was, from the start, avoidable. From the warrior perspective, the solution is simple: the people with whom officers interact must accede, respecting officers’ authority by doing what they are told. The failure to comply is confirmation that the individual is an enemy for the warrior to vanquish, physically if necessary.
Given this mentality drilled into them during training, should we be surprised at the depressing regularity of tragic outcomes when the person, as Bland did in this case, simply asserts her rights? There is another case of another unarmed person, a white man this time, dying in police custody in Mississippi after being hog-tied by them, a practice that is banned in some parts of the country because of the danger of death by asphyxiation.
The police need to learn that they do not have the power over the public that slave owners had over slaves, where the latter had to immediately bow before them and obey orders, and that they are in the end public servants and have to treat the public with courtesy and respect for their rights. If they are so frightened of the public that they cannot do so, then they should not be in their jobs.