"If you don’t want to get shot, just do what I tell you": American cops are on a dangerous power trip

The defenders of law enforcement have reacted predictably to the Sandra Bland tragedy -- with bullheaded defiance

By Heather Digby Parton


Published July 23, 2015 8:25PM (EDT)

The arrest and resultant death of Sandra Bland in Texas after a petty traffic stop has justifiably caught the imagination of the American public. The video of this young woman's treatment at the hands of police -- by all indications for failing to be verbally submissive -- is terrifying. National reporters are shocked, and wondering just how something like this could happen in the good old USA.

But those of us who follow these stories all the time know very well that this sort of altercation happens every day in America and often results in tasering, physical violence and worse, as police officers demand total deference in both word and deed in their presence. When citizens attempt to assert their rights, argue with officers or demand justification for being taken into custody, cops move to immediately establish their dominance and often physically force the citizen to comply, regardless of the pettiness of the alleged crime.

Here's a little reminder of what cops, and many fellow Americans (until it happens to them), believe citizens should do when a police officer is present:

[I]f 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.

That's from an Op-Ed by a former police officer and current criminal justice professor by the name of Sunil Dutta. His argument is, of course, complete nonsense. Yes, on a practical level, knowing what we know about how police behave in this country, one would be wise to just try to get out of any dealings with a cop alive. Here's a stop that ended with the police breaking a window and tasering a black male passenger inside the car while his kids screamed in the backseat. Here's one in which the police thought a bike-riding black man (who happened to be a firefighter) was "throwing signs" at them. (He was just waving hello.) In the end, he got lucky. They only threatened to taser him.

But I sure hope all those nice white conservatives who back this police behavior don't have the misapprehension that the same thing couldn't happen to them. This stop ended in violence between a police officer and a young white dad who was just disputing what the sign on the highway said. Here's one with an elderly white woman who mouthed off to the cop when he stopped her for speeding. This one has disturbing parallels with the recent Walter Scott murder in South Carolina -- a police officer shot a taser in the back of a handcuffed suspect who was fleeing the scene. As with most taser victims, she went down very hard and later died from the head injuries.

This poor person had two strikes against her that make any confrontation with police potentially deadly -- she was African-American and mentally ill.

A mentally ill woman who died after a stun gun was used on her at the Fairfax County jail in February was restrained with handcuffs behind her back, leg shackles and a mask when a sheriff’s deputy shocked her four times, incident reports obtained by The Washington Post show.

Natasha McKenna initially cooperated with deputies, placed her hands through her cell door food slot and agreed to be handcuffed, the reports show. But McKenna, whose deteriorating mental state had caused Fairfax to seek help for her, then began trying to fight her way out of the cuffs, repeatedly screaming, “You promised you wouldn’t hurt me!” the reports show.

Then, six members of the Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team, dressed in white full-body biohazard suits and gas masks, arrived and placed a wildly struggling 130-pound McKenna into full restraints, their reports state. But when McKenna wouldn’t bend her knees so she could be placed into a wheeled restraint chair, a lieutenant delivered four 50,000-volt shocks from the Taser, enabling the other deputies to strap her into the chair, the reports show.

Remember, these are just the incidents that make it to videotape. And there are literally thousands of them on YouTube.

This happens far more often to African-Americans, who are also stopped more often and taken into custody more often on bogus charges. But it can happen to anyone, even a privileged white male who naturally thinks that it's OK to argue and otherwise interact with a cop because: rights. Well, we all have rights, in theory. In practice, in the presence of a police officer we have none.

Sandra Bland felt she was being treated unjustly and argued with the officer. At the end of the interaction when he was about to hand her the ticket, the officer told her to put out her cigarette and when she refused, saying it was her own car, he got angry and used his authority to threaten her, abuse her, unlawfully arrest her and jailed her. On the third day in jail she died, in isolation, under circumstances that can at best be described as questionable. There was no good reason for her to be in there at all.

The events of the last year, starting with Ferguson, have brought into sharp focus what some of us have been observing for years, and African-Americans and other people of color have been experiencing forever. Law enforcement in this country is dysfunctional. The Black Lives Matter movement and the national attention it has brought to the issue has finally awakened the press, the political establishment and, perhaps most important, the law enforcement community.

But change isn't going to come easily. As a piece last month in the New York Times pointed out, in those departments that are trying to retrain police to move away from military tactics, the rank-and-file are not necessarily receptive:

Officer Corey Papinsky was recently showing a group of Seattle police officers how to reduce the chance of using force against a citizen during a suddenly antagonistic encounter.

Approaching a civilian with your hands on a weapon or making too much eye contact with someone could unnecessarily escalate a situation, Officer Papinsky said. “Keep your hands visible at all times,” he advised.

But he faced a tough crowd. “It seems good advice for the suspect,” one officer said. “We want to see their hands.”

Another officer had a different approach.

“Last week, there was a guy in a car who wouldn’t show me his hands,” the officer said. “I pulled my gun out and stuck it right in his nose, and I go, ‘Show me your hands now!’ That’s de-escalation.”

It's stressful to be stopped by a cop, and we don't always behave with perfect control when we feel we're being treated unjustly. When we have mental and physical problems, we aren't always able to properly follow orders. And yet it's the citizens who are being told they must behave with perfect emotional control, lest they provoke the anger of officers, who are supposed to be professionals.

It turns out that the last 30 years of police training are partially responsible for that attitude. When police adopted the "broken windows" strategy of citing people for lane changes without signaling and the like, they lost focus on teaching de-escalation methods. They also lost interest in professionalism, patience and psychology as necessary tools in the police arsenal. In fact, they came to believe they only need loud voices, tasers and guns (maybe in a pinch some body armor, Humvees and some tear gas). They certainly lost sight of the common sense understanding that authoritarian tactics are anathema to a free society.

Police officers have tough jobs, nobody disputes that. Our streets are flooded with guns, which police officers' fiercest defenders don't seem to care about. But to paraphrase "Mad Men's" Don Draper, that's what the great benefits, early retirement and generous pensions are for! They deserve everything they earn and more. But the fact that the job is tough does not mean they are entitled to make citizens grovel before them and offer them unquestioning obeisance.

In fact, it's the other way around. It's people like Sandra Bland who are entitled to their rights, which are guaranteed under the Constitution. None of us should have to give them up simply because we're in the presence of an officer of the law. It was to protect us from exactly that sort of abuse that the founders wrote down the Bill of Rights in the first place.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Law Enforcement Police Abuse Police Violence Racism Sandra Bland White Supremacy