There’s an article at the failing <i>New York Times</i> that breaks down how police report their time spent. The whole thing is worth a read so I’m going to comment obliquely on it, rather than quoting extensively from it. [nytimes]
As always, it’s hard to get statistics about what police spend their time doing, because, well, they have nothing to hide.
The “violent crime” and “medical or other” may blur – we don’t really know if “violent crime” means dealing with the aftermath of a bar fight, or breaking up a bar fight. Undoubtedly there are many memorable moments in every police officer’s career, when they have to charge in to a situation where fists are windmilling, but it doesn’t seem like it’s very often, and it’s also one of those things where we can reasonably ask whether the police had to deploy violence or whether they were simply dealing with it by their presence.
I have not witnessed many violent encounters in which the police became involved – maybe 3 or 4 – but they mostly were resolved before the police arrived, or the situation calmed down extremely quickly as soon as the parties involved saw a cop car. Admittedly, I’ve missed some of the local violent encounters with police, because I tend to avoid situations where that sort of thing happens. In my part of Pennsylvania, that mostly means: football games. When Joe Paterno was justifiably fired for protecting a pedophile assistant coach, there was a white privilege football fan riot in downtown state college, in which car windows were smashed, signs torn down, rocks thrown through windows – and the police did not respond with force. Probably because their precious privilege wasn’t threatened. I’ve witnessed a few street fights, one of which was broken by a bunch of bystanders yelling “hey, stop it!” and not cheering the combatants on. It would be interesting to know how the police would have scored that when they eventually showed up.
The key point, though, is that they need to be armed less than – let’s say – 5% of the time. That, to me, does not justify the police driving around with shotguns in ready-clips in their cars, like they do in Clearfield County.
A rather obvious thing to consider would be having more police that were less expensive than the ones that cruise around in armored cars with computers and data links, shotguns and military-style rifles, wearing body armor. Perhaps the police should be foot/basic car patrols that are not ready for war, and a few rapid response units that are.
The broader point that gets ignored in this discussion it this: why are the police prepared all the time for a lethal response to things that are not violent crimes? I recounted an incident last year [stderr] in which Pennsylvania state police pulled me over, and were ready to shoot me because their license-plate scanner flagged my truck as a stolen vehicle because the scanner was not smart enough to tell a Pennsylvania (mine) plate on a great big black Chevy Tahoe from a Virginia plate (stolen) on a WV Jetta. Or, maybe the cops in the cruiser only saw “stolen” on the computer and couldn’t be arsed to read the vehicle description. Instead of responding in a non-threatening manner, the police were prepared to kill me if I didn’t immediately and fake-eagerly comply with their orders.
Resisting arrest is the issue. I was never in danger of being placed under arrest, because I hadn’t done a damn thing and was probably driving too slowly, if anything. But, had I mouthed back to the officers, or not ponied up my license and registration quickly, without looking like I was reaching for a gun, I would have been “resisting” even though, at no time, did the officers indicate that I was under arrest or might be. The way the laws are enforced are absurd on the face of it, especially if you buy the NYT‘s metric that less than 5% of police responses involve a violent crime: cops show up prepared to kill someone if the person “resists” getting a speeding ticket, or a citation for a cracked windshield, or even politely warning an officer that they have a licensed handgun in the car and a permit to carry. Other than basic racism and thuggishness, the problem is that cops are ready to kill you for not obeying them immediately – they have derived an absurd interpretation of the law in which non-compliance is resistance and resistance must be crushed with overwhelming force. The cops who pulled me over would have been guilty of “assault with a deadly weapon” for threatening me with guns, for no good reason, had they been civilians. Cops are not empowered (though they think they are) to be judge, jury, and executioner in the event that someone does not comply with their orders.
It’s the ideology of absolute compliance that makes cops feel empowered to deploy deadly force for absolutely absurd situations. Add to that “no knock” warrants and other policing practices that assume that a citizen, before being found guilty of anything, can be treated like a criminal. And cops have way too much leeway (in their minds) to interpret these things – for example, they have mostly been informed over and over again that citizens have the right to photograph or videotape police activity in public, yet there are endless incidents in which cops (who have nothing to hide, remember?) take people’s cameras or the memory card from the camera. Usually, these days, they take the camera or phone if they can get away with it, because there have been too many cases where a photographer gives a cop a different memory card than the one that was in the camera at the time. Most street photographers that I know keep a tosser camera and a memory card in their pocket while they’re working if they think someone is likely to come demand the device. The issue, again, is the jump from non-compliance to “resistance” which cops persist in ignoring. “I am not resisting” will still earn you a face-full of pepper spray when cops are rioting and you happen to be in the vicinity. That this is not interpreted as aggravated assault and felony battery on the part of the cop is the problem. We have allowed the interpretation of law to slide down a slippery slope to the point where police can commit felony assault on citizens if the citizens do not reply fast enough to even ridiculous, incoherent, or inappropriate orders. Then, there’s the other issue to consider, which is that people who have hearing problems, or mental problems, or who are drunk may have trouble understanding police officers’ orders. That is not “resisting arrest” that’s “too fucked up to understand what the police are telling you.”
One of my neighbors who lives near my studio got 30 days and had to wear a tracker anklet, because he was driving drunk, and mouthed off to the officer who arrested him. “Mouthed off” means “give me a fucking break” and apparently officers in Clearfield County are such sensitive little hothouse flowers that the word “fuck” gives them heart palpitations and they may shoot you rather than head for their fainting-couch. Need I mention that my neighbor is white? Yes, I think that given current affairs, I do need to mention that. He said he was blearily scared shitless because the cops looked like they were ready to shoot him if he didn’t get out of the car and lie facedown by the road in a hurry. I know it’s my white privilege speaking, but I do not consider that a measured use of the threat of force: drunk drivers are a problem and a danger to themselves and others, but they need to be dropped at home to sleep it off, and sent a summons to meet with the magistrate in the mail. Yes, I understand that a grumpy drunk who says “fuck” to a cop may flip out and pull a gun and shoot said cop, but that’s less likely to happen if the cop doesn’t make them lie facedown in the road and handcuff them. Perhaps, “look you’re drunk, get in the back of the car and I’ll take you home and my partner will follow behind in your car, and you’ve just spent a bunch of money in fines and court fees and you really need to learn not to do this,” not the threat of violence.
That’s what I want to say: how did we get to a place where non-compliance is such a threat to police authority that they are willing to kill you if you don’t immediately do what they say? Over and over, we hear about people dying for what are non-crimes that have been promoted to “did not comply” and then to “resisted arrest” and if it’s a “big scary black guy” doing it, then officer hothouse flower shoots someone? How did we get to a place where non-compliance regarding police directives in a non-crime is a justification for murdering someone.
Whenever someone says “innocent before proven guilty” my mouth fills with the flavor of vomit, and I have to spit carefully lest some cop thinks I’m spitting at them.
This is another point aimed squarely at those “not all cops are bad cops” clowns, who want to come in here and tone-troll people for saying cops are bastards. Yes, they are: they are part of a system that has interpreted fairly sensible civil law into an utterly nonsensical regime of compulsive obedience under threat of violence. In principle, the idea is that you don’t get punished for a crime that you haven’t committed, and the 1st amendment ought to protect every citizen’s right to say “fuck you” to a cop. Not just say “fuck” in the presence of a cop: cops ought to be tough enough to be able to handle a little bit of verbal abuse. I’ve noticed that the Transportation Security Administration (i.e.: airport cops) were promoting the idea that saying “fuck you” to a TSA agent was “threatening” and you had to speak carefully to them or you were a fucking domestic terrorist. If they can’t handle the word ‘fuck’ they need to turn their badge and gun in and get a job in daycare.