The cops won’t change until we start expecting them to

Police brutalitySo I’m sitting here this morning at my neighborhood bagel joint, reading my email and having a bagel and coffee and trying to control my blood pressure as the couple seated behind me argue about the death of Sandra Bland. Or, to be more specific, about the traffic stop that led to the death of Sandra Bland.

You see, the guy (of course it’s the guy) is arguing that the big takeaway from the dashcam video of that traffic stop is that Bland was at least in part responsible for the rough treatment she received, because she was disrespectfully refused the officer’s request that she put out her cigarette.

“There’s nothing to be gained by fighting something like that on the spot,” he tells his breakfast companion. “If a police officer asks you to do something, unless that thing would put you in physical danger, you should just comply. Any competent attorney will tell you that. Comply and fight it in court later. Getting all bent out of shape because you ‘know your rights'” — you can hear the air quotes around the words as he says them — “won’t accomplish anything except causing problems. Because things happen, you know? Things happen.”

That’s true! Attorneys will tell you that! As Sandra Bland could testify if she were still alive, when you act disrespectful to a cop, things do happen.

Which is kind of the entire fucking problem, you know?

Citizens shouldn’t have to walk around on eggshells any time a cop approaches them out of fear of getting a beating if they say the wrong thing. Cops are (supposed to be) public servants. They work for us.  They should be the ones bending over to respect our sensitivities, not the other way around.

Dealing with grouchy, unpleasant people is no fun, I’ll grant you that. But anyone who works in a job where they interact with the public knows that’s no excuse for flipping out. Being a professional means learning to put aside your irritation at the occasional rude person and get on with doing your job. That’s the standard we expect 19-year-old cashiers at Walmart to be able to meet, anyway. Why should we expect less from an armed police officer?

Because that’s what we do when we make passive-voice statements like “things happen.” We’re making excuses. We’re justifying expecting less.

See, people who work in and around law enforcement don’t tell you to “comply and fight it later” because that’s the right thing to do. They tell you that to protect you. They know there are cops out there who refuse to follow even the minimal standard of professionalism of a zit-faced Walmart cashier. They tell you this to protect you from those cops, in the same way they would tell you not to climb the fence around the lion’s den at the zoo.

But lions at least have a good reason for their behavior: they’re fucking lions. Eating people is what lions do. They don’t have free will; they don’t decide to eat people. It’s nothing personal, in other words. Like the scorpion in the fable of the scorpion and the frog, it’s just their nature.

Cops are human beings, though. They do have free will. They can decide to do better. They just don’t have to, because we, their employers, don’t require them to.

So yes: telling people to be extremely cautious when dealing with cops is good advice. Which is about as damning a condemnation of the state of police professionalism in America as anyone could possibly make.