Monday, December 10, 2007

Do police deserve deference?

In a comment on one of my posts regarding the tasering of Jared Massey, that prolific writer "Anonymous" raised some interesting points regarding proper conduct toward police that I think are worth addressing. I reproduce the comment in full here:

If I follow your blog correctly, we should engage police on every occasion where we don't agree with their judgement of a situation, right there on the spot. I'm not really sure how that would work. Maybe we should take the human element out if it completely and enforce the law with radar controlled cameras like they do it Germany. Then the motorist would have had no opportunity to attempt to debate instead of following a rational and safe procedure of accepting the ticket and challenging it in court, which is the correct venue for defending oneself.

From the video, it did not appear to me that the officer "out of control". It did show that the officer unfortunately and incorrectly escalated the confrontation to an unacceptable level too quickly, with little cause. He should certainly be disciplined and retrained. However, the motorist was not following his instructions and while the officer didn't handle it correctly, one doesn't want to see roadside debates with police.

Let's forget the rhetoric and deal with the situation in a rational manner. What we witnessed was a complex problem of the kind confronted by human law enforcement officers every day. The officer has to cope with the eventuality that motorists, also being human, are going to exhibit a range of behavior from docile compliance to extremely aggressive. The motorist in this situation provoked an escalation of response from the law enforcement officer and while I don't condone tasing the motorist, I also don't think comparisons with pre-2003 Iraq apply either.

I appreciate this poster sharing his/her views, since I think they effectively illustrate a view of the proper relationship between people and police officers that is fundamentally at odds with my own. The idea here seems to be that people owe some sort of deference to police officers, that we should follow their instructions without question, refrain from argument when we believe that they are mistaken and raise objections only after the fact, through "proper" channels. While the writer here doesn't explicitly say so, this view often seems based in the implicit (or sometimes explicit) premise that police are a higher sort of creature than mere civilians -- both because of the awesome responsibility they have in enforcing the law, and the danger they face in performing their duties.

Needless to say, I don't find this argument persuasive.

As I've done before, I'll start by pointing to the principles laid down by Sir Robert Peel as the foundation for modern police forces. In particular, Principle Seven states:

Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent upon every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.

Make no mistake -- the founder of modern law-enforcement believed it necessary to specify that police are just regular people who earn their keep by maintaining the peace full-time; they have no special authority.

So, if the police are just folks in blue polyester shirts, why are we supposed to obey their dictates as if they've been handed down from Mount Olympus? We argue with plumbers, doctors and store clerks when we believe that they are mistaken, even about matters within their areas of expertise. Why would we make special rules for enforcers of the laws -- especially when the consequences of their mistakes can involve such monumental matters as stiff fines and loss of liberty?

Is it because police work for the government?

But every day, people argue with Motor Vehicle clerks, building inspectors and elected officials. We often consider them to be mistaken, or worse, and we call them on it. In fact, it would be hard to classify as a society as "free" if people didn't feel at liberty to call government officials nasty names.

Is it because their jobs are so dangerous?

But it's not obvious that the danger of a job you voluntarily assume should automatically place your actions beyond question. Is there a sliding scale along which danger equals immunity from challenge? If so, Alaskan fishermen would have to rate a status exceeding that of papal infallibility.

But, speaking of sliding scales ...

Police work is dangerous, but not exceptionally so. According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics (PDF), fishermen, lumberjacks and airplane pilots put them to shame in the macho Olympics; even taxicab drivers have a tougher time of it.

So there's no real argument for granting police special status because of the supposed risks of their jobs.

But there is good reason to argue with police. Police officers are, after all, human; they make bad judgment calls, or even make decisions that might have gone one way or the other. In fact, out of necessity, much of police work involves the exercise of discretion -- to enforce a law with iron resolve, or to exercise lenience. Police can put the screws on you for violating long-forgotten statutes, or turn a blind eye to common violations of the nonsense that clutters up law books. Police can pull you over for doing 66 in a 65-MPH zone, or wave off drivers going 70. They can haul you off to jail for minor violations, or let you off with a ticket -- or a warning. Unless we replace police officers with Anonymous's "radar controlled cameras" (a move I'd oppose), police are going to continue to exercise discretion.

And the natural reaction to police officers with discretion is to attempt to influence their decisions. When cops decide one way and could have decided another, it's perfectly natural to try to change their minds, to flatter them, or to shame them. In fact, even kissing their asses can be a means of trying to influence their decisions. As a criminal justice lecturer at North Carolina Wesleyan College points out, "Citizens who show deference (good demeanor) toward police are treated more leniently... Police sympathize with and only lecture some offenders."

So, pace Anonymous, there's no good reason to afford police special treatment, and there's every reason in the world to argue with them when you think they're wrong, or that their minds can be changed. Throw in the enormous consequences of letting police wield their power unchallenged, and arguing with cops is not just understandable, it's commendable.



Anonymous Itwaslegalnot said...

"It was legal" is the first and weakest defense of that kind of injustice and abuse of power.

Deference. Not to just any cop or ANYONE. NO to ALL the "anonymousies". Unfortunately, many of us would be the first to help a Utah trooper in trouble, and without a MAJOR apology from the state of Utah to the Massey family, I have to admit I would think twice about stopping since I am not sure whose side I am now on.

I believe the UHP has now "ruled" that that the trooper's actions were justified. So now UTAH TOURISM IS GOING TO TAKE A RIDE ON THE TASER. Twice. First we surprise Utah Tourism and tase (boycott) them in the back and they fall on their empty highway, and then one more time while they are confused (still whining it was an isolated incident) lying on their empty highways.

Call Leigh von der Esch, Utah Tourism managing director and ask when will it be safe for the rest of us to travel in Utah again since THAT was a justified use of force on the Massey family? Off their public website.
lvondere at

Here is the contact info for John Huntsman, Jr., the governor of the State of Utah.

State Capitol Complex
East Office Building, Suite E220
PO Box 142220
Salt Lake City, Utah 84114-2220
Fax 801-538-1528
Lt. Governor's Fax 801-538-1133

Be polite. Be Well (Vote with your feet people, Boycott and check out Colorado and California, lovely).

Mark Twain.
"Be loyal to your country always, and to the government only when it deserves it".
"Each man must for himself alone decide what is right and what is wrong, which course is patriotic and which isn't".

December 11, 2007 9:00 AM  
Blogger lawhobbit said...

How about, "Because they - unlike doctors and plumbers and stor clerks - can pretty much shoot and kill you with impunity if you argue with them" as a rationale. :D

December 11, 2007 4:56 PM  
Anonymous MacK THe RIPper said...

Lawhobbit: As long as we as a citizenry do argue when wronged by the very people who swear an oath to obey and uphold the law, they will not be allowed to do any wrong to us with impunity.

December 13, 2007 8:21 PM  

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