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Be polite to the police

I guess I’ll take up the RedState counter-point position on whether it’s “fascist” for a former police officer to encourage polite behavior during encounters with the cops.  That word is remarkably ill-chosen.  Even if you think the author in question, former LAPD officer and current Colorado Tech professor of homeland security Sunil Dutta, is endorsing arrogance or authoritarianism, that’s well short of “fascism.”  The Eff Word should not be bandied about lightly.  I also don’t think it should be avoided completely.  Understanding the true nature of fascism is important to defeating it, and to avoiding its allure.  Yes, it has allure, and it’s quite powerful; like all the other isms, it has adherents who think its core tenets are sound, and just haven’t been implemented properly by The Right People yet.

Nothing Dutta says comes anywhere near fascism.  I would also dispute the characterization of his article as largely containing “extraneous fluff.”  It’s quite obvious that many people need to hear what cops go through.  Sadly, it is also necessary to emphasize that they’re not bloodthirsty psychopaths with itchy trigger fingers.  Look at the demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri.  I mean really look at them.  Read the signs, listen to the speeches, check out the commentary from all those “outside agitators.”  There are a lot of people who do think the police forces consist largely of thugs and nearly genocidal killers.  You’ve got irresponsible loons like Michael Eric Dyson running around and calling the Brown shooting “clearly a brutal execution of this unarmed young man by police.”  Dutta isn’t preening himself – he’s responding to a socially destructive accusation made by cynical operators who know it isn’t true, and will therefore be ever more cunning about spreading it.

This isn’t just a point of wounded ego for police officers.  They’re not being churlish.  Their lives are on the line.  If they are obliged to go into communities full of people who think they are fascist goons who kill young black men for sport, the odds of them coming under attack increase.  The possibility of resolving conflicts peacefully diminishes.

As Dutta points out, encounters with the police are rarely hail-fellow-well-met affairs filled with country-club jocularity.  Everyone is naturally nervous and defensive when approached by law enforcement.  Nobody sees red-and-blue lights flashing in the rear-view mirror and thinks, “Oh, goody, the police want to have a word with me!  I can’t wait to tell them how much I like the paint job on their new cruisers!”  Everyone feels that momentary sting of guilt and defensiveness.  Of course, if you are guilty of something and you know it, the sting lasts longer, and can result in more aggressive behavior.  That gets to the crucial point of the encounter in Ferguson between Officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown: it remains a subject of debate whether Wilson knew Brown had just pulled off a strong-arm robbery, but Brown most certainly knew it, and probably suspected Wilson did too, or would find out at any moment.

So both police and citizens enter nearly every encounter with some degree of apprehension, sometimes for different reasons.  The cop knows why he initiated the encounter.  The citizen may or may not know.  The citizen might have an inaccurate theory of why the encounter began.  The last time I was pulled over by a police officer, it was because the lights that illuminate my license plate had gone out.  I had absolutely no idea this problem existed, and was confused and astonished when those lights flashed on behind me.  Never for one microsecond did I think it would be a good idea to begin the conversation by angrily demanding to know why she had dared to interrupt my lawful and conscientious driving.  I was polite, she was cheerful, and I thanked her for making me aware of the problem.

Nothing in this passage from Dutta’s article is foolish, offensive, arrogant, fascist, or bad advice:

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?

I know it is scary for people to be stopped by cops. I also understand the anger and frustration if people believe they have been stopped unjustly or without a reason. I am aware that corrupt and bully cops exist. When it comes to police misconduct, I side with the ACLU: Having worked as an internal affairs investigator, I know that some officers engage in unprofessional and arrogant behavior; sometimes they behave like criminals themselves. I also believe every cop should use a body camera to record interactions with the community at all times. Every police car should have a video recorder. (This will prevent a situation like Mike Brown’s shooting, about which conflicting and self-serving statements allow people to believe what they want.) And you don’t have to submit to an illegal stop or search. You can refuse consent to search your car or home if there’s no warrant (though a pat-down is still allowed if there is cause for suspicion). Always ask the officer whether you are under detention or are free to leave. Unless the officer has a legal basis to stop and search you, he or she must let you go. Finally, cops are legally prohibited from using excessive force: The moment a suspect submits and stops resisting, the officers must cease use of force.

I heartily agree on the body camera idea – a simple and inexpensive precaution with today’s technology.  I endorse the rest of it too, without qualification or reservation: do not argue with the police officer, call them names, tell them they can’t stop you, insult them as racist pigs, threaten them, scream at them, or try to physically intimidate them.

You know what?  That’s good advice for dealing with just about everyone.  Be polite to the police.  Be polite to Burger King counter attendants, random strangers you meet while jogging, airline flight attendants, and everyone else too.

But the police are a special case, for the reasons Dutta and I have outlined.  It’s not quite the same thing as ordering a burger or asking a flight attendant for an extra pillow.  It is a more uncertain encounter than most other interactions we might have in life.  A cop’s typical workday is quite a bit different than most; he or she is under different kinds of stress.  The police officer also has reason to believe that most encounters with citizens can go bad very quickly, in ways ranging from verbal altercation to physical violence.  The cop and citizen are understandably and justifiably apprehensive of each other, for different reasons.  Do you read a lot of stories about police officers getting hurt and killed in the line of duty?  I’ll bet most of the officers you’ll meet read those stories even more closely than you do.

Nothing diffuses such apprehension better than good manners.  In fact, many of our social customs descend from times when encounters between travelers were even more commonly perilous and uncertain.

It is fair to say that the police should be polite as well.  They are trained that way.  But they’re also trained to establish control of uncertain situations quickly, and that can involve a degree of intimidation.  The more out-of-control the situation becomes, the more urgently an officer – especially a lone officer dealing with multiple people – can feel it necessary to use intimidation tactics to assert authority.  They can get it wrong sometimes, sure.  They’re only human.  Some of them are better and more experienced than others.  And that is where our responsibility as citizens obliges us to do our part, and offer the very modest assistance of conducting ourselves with restraint.

Yes, citizens have responsibilities, too.  If you’re going to view the police as stormtroopers in an invading army, you’re not really part of the same society as them any more.  Unless you’re a hardened criminal, you probably want the police to serve and protect you.  This must be a reciprocal relationship, a two-way street, and no amount of general disdain for the overall performance of police forces, locally or nationwide, absolves us of the responsibility to hold our end of that relationship up.  I assume the majority of people reading this are adults.  Very well: conduct yourself as one.  It’s a terrible weakness in our social fabric that demanding responsible adult behavior from everyone is considered controversial.  No favors are done for any group of people by setting lower standards for them, out of pity or condescension.

An adult understands that polite behavior is not an act of submission.  On the contrary, it is a demonstration of strength and confidence.  Police officers do not relish dealing with anxious citizens.  You’re not bending the knee to a cop and submitting to his fascist appetites by being polite to him – what infantile rubbish.  It’s no surprise to find a lack of social stability among people who think good manners and modest conduct are signs of weakness and submission.

And if the officer doesn’t return your good manners?  It happens, to be sure.  There are abuses, some of them outrageous.  I’m not here to say every officer is a paragon.  But I am here to tell you that if you show polite respect to police officers – who have undergone training, sworn vows, and accepted risks that make their office worthy of respect – the odds of any given encounter going hideously wrong are vastly diminished, no matter what color your skin is.  

Be polite to the police.  I offer that advice without qualification or exception.  I wonder why it is necessary to keep repeating it.  Or to explain why it’s not invalidated by bad or even criminal behavior by individual police officers.  “Here’s a list of police officers who were jerks, and that’s why I treat them all like jerks!” is not a winning strategy.

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