Friday, March 27, 2009

Today, We're All Driving While Black

(An infrared image of a house in the United Kingdom that was mistakenly raided for suspected marijuana growth. Image credit: London Daily Mail)

This story is fascinating because of what it says about us as a country these days, as the Philadelphia Inquirer summarizes from its wire services:

A Dallas police officer was placed on administrative leave yesterday after he kept former Eagle Ryan Moats in a hospital parking lot and threatened to arrest him while Moats' mother-in-law died inside the building.

Officer Robert Powell also drew his gun during the March 18 incident involving Moats, now with the Houston Texans, in the Dallas suburb of Plano, police said.

The incident was videotaped. When another officer came with word that Moats' mother-in-law, 45-year-old Jonetta Collinsworth, was indeed dying, Powell's response was: "All right. I'm almost done."

By the time the 26-year-old running back had gotten the ticket and a lecture from Powell, about 13 minutes had passed. When he and Collinsworth's father entered the hospital, they learned Collinsworth was dead.

NFL: Dallas officer put on leave after incident with ex-Eagle

The first thing that strikes me is how little about the incident itself seems surprising. We've become so used to having to answer to law enforcement personnel that it seems almost routine. At airports we're expected to endure searches of our persons and our luggage so that we can be allowed on a plane. If you drive around the Southwest, you can expect to have to explain who you are to Border Patrol officers. As a traveler in that region, I've had that experience several times. This is becoming increasingly true up here in the Northwest, as well. Fortunately, I don't look like a Mexican and I don't talk like a Canadian. It's not just paranoids who assume we're being watched these days. It's not just the neurotic who have reason to fear being at airports.

We've also become used to people not using the most basic powers of observation and reason. This incident happened in a hospital parking lot. How many people drive to the hospital for no reason? You don't need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out that Mr. and Mrs. Moats were probably telling the truth when they said they were visiting a dying relative. They also, according to the Dallas police chief, did not behave inappropriately given the situation:

[Dallas police chief David] Kunkle adds Moats and his wife Tamishia Moats exercised patience and restraint when dealing with the officer, adding that Moats never mentioned he was a professional football player.

Officer Blocked Houston Texan From Reaching Dying Mother-In-Law

Thanks to some ludicrous overreactions to the sorts of things that go on in our society all the time, I'm seldom surprised by irrational behavior on the part of some law enforcement officials.

What appears to have prompted this investigation is also instructive:

Nurses, a security guard and a Plano police officer came to persuade the officer to allow Moats to see his mother-in-law, but he kept Moats outside for nearly 20-minutes.
Dallas police are trying to determine why they were unaware of the incident until nearly a week later.

The Plano police officer who confronted the Dallas officer at the scene, later went to his supervisor to inform Dallas police about the incident.

Officer Blocked Houston Texan From Reaching Dying Mother-In-Law

My guess is that if that Plano police officer hadn't made the complaint, one professional to another, then this incident might never have been investigated. Of course, had Moats not been a professional football player, it's unlikely this incident would have appeared in Google News and thus come to my attention. Had Moats been a black man who wasn't a celebrity, it seems possible that, if he had filed a complaint, they would have dismissed it as another "driving while black" complaint.

The only thing I find surprising, and somewhat pleasantly so, is that both the Plano officer and at least some parts of the Dallas police thought this worth investigating. Police officers certainly have their professional pride and ethical standards, but they sometimes are subordinated to an "us versus them" mentality. There have been enough examples of overuse of force that have gone unpunished that it seems extraordinary that they'd take this seriously enough to consider dismissing this officer. I wouldn't bet on that outcome, but that it's numbered in the possibilities is a good thing. A hothead with a gun is dangerous, whether in or out of a police uniform. As the Dallas police chief notes:

Kunkle says the essence of being a police officer is common sense and discretion, and the officer's behavior was inappropriate.

Officer Blocked Houston Texan From Reaching Dying Mother-In-Law

Police work is stressful and potentially dangerous. As part of their work, police officers often have to ask questions and do things to us citizens that we find annoying or even painful. People who can't do that work without losing their composure and behaving emotionally or irrationally shouldn't be doing it. Any police department that can't or won't investigate complaints against its officers is a potential danger to the people it's supposed to be protecting. In a time when both the presence of law enforcement and their power to monitor us are on the increase, it's especially so.

I wonder how many Americans see things that way.

UPDATE: Added the graphic, and amended the concluding paragraph. Originally, anyone reading it would have gotten the idea that irrational police officers were a good thing.

UPDATE 2 (Mar. 31): If you think that a police department wouldn't ignore a "driving while black" complaint, you might want to read this article and reconsider your opinion. Read the comments, too, particularly the one by a man who is afraid to leave his apartment at night, for having been harassed so many times by his local police department.

I'm not saying that no police department would take such complaints seriously, but it's clear that some don't, and they're a problem both for their communities and themselves.


Dana Hunter said...

Ed Brayton runs a lot of posts about this sort o' thing. The vast majority of police officers are indeed good public servants doing a hard job well. Then you get the assholes on a power trip.

Alas, there seem to be more of the latter these days. I think it has something to do with having lived under an authoritarian regime for 8 years. Assholes got ideas; some got promoted. And we end up with far too many situations like this.

Cujo359 said...

In any line of work, there will be people hired who aren't suited to the job. That's inevitable, no matter how good the screening process is. Any properly functioning entity that must hire people will have in place some way of identifying these people and putting them on a more suitable task. Many police officers, unfortunately, work alone these days. There isn't the direct means of finding those people when there are no other members of that police department around. In those cases, the police have to take feedback from outsiders more seriously.

Of course, I don't know if any other people complained about this, or if this is just how people in the Dallas area expect their police to behave. In either case, there's clearly some improvement necessary in the evaluation process.

I'd also observe that we've spent the better part of a decade being stressed out. First, they wanted us to be afraid of terrorism, and many people certainly obliged. Now, we worried about our jobs and how we're going to pay for things. The growing income disparity hasn't helped that situation, either. So it seems reasonable to expect that there will be more stress in many situations where strangers are trying to understand each other.

So, while I suspect that the increase in authoritarian behavior on the part of our ruling class has had an effect, there are certainly other explanations.