Policing based on fear can’t work

I’m a bit fixated on cases where the personal advice one might give to a friend or family member does not align with the policy we should pursue (see this post). Sunil Dutta, a 17 year veteran of the LAPD, recommends offering no resistance when you are detained by police, if you want to prevent a bad outcome:

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’s the least nuanced paragraph in the piece, but I think it’s worth talking about. This is good advice from one person to another. I’ve been pulled over a number of times and this is the strategy I’ve always followed. I don’t want to go to jail or even get a ticket – what can I do to put the cop at ease so that I hopefully get the outcome I want?

My nephew is going to get his driver’s license soon. This is the advice I’d give him. An altercation with a cop is a no win scenario for the other party.

On the other hand, it’s completelly troubling to see a cop say this to the public. Basically, this cop is warning all of us that unless you can make a policeman feel safe, you’re liable to be subjected to violence and potentially deadly violence until the policeman does feel safe. Bear in mind that in the vast majority of interactions between police and the public, the policeman is the only armed party. Even more troubling is the fact that the biases of the police officer bear greatly on how safe the cop feels, regardless of the situation, making it vastly more likely that members of some age and ethnic groups will be subjected to violence or mistreatment than others.

The policy question is, how do we create a system where interactions between the police and civilians are governed by more than the cop’s feeling of being threatened. Maybe that means going back to partner policing. Maybe that means changing policy so that cops encounter armed citizens less often. It seems like a lot of cops shoot unarmed people out of fear that they are going for the cop’s gun – maybe cops shouldn’t carry guns as a matter of course. Whatever the solution is, serving notice to the public that if you scare us, we will hurt you can’t be part of it.

We’re seeing that on a mass scale in Ferguson, Missouri right now. An entire community has scared the police, and they’re responding by inflicting harm on that community on a daily basis until it stops. Policing that’s governed by fear can’t be effective. For another approach, see Jason Kottke’s post, Policing by Consent.

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