Friday, November 18, 2011

The Limits Of Force

Sadly, I can't actually show you this photo, because it's an AP photo and the rules that apply to everyone else in America don't apply to them. But go here and look at that photo. Now that you have the context, pretend it was that photo here in place of this paragraph.

Wow. Portland’s Finest must be so proud of themselves right now. That's some good aim – got her right in the face. She looks like a serious threat to all those cops, too. What is she, 115 pounds (that's like, 52 kilograms for you foreigners)? Maybe they should put a couple of beanbag rounds into her before she hulks out on them.

I'm sure it was just purely awful down there for those police. They must have had their hands full with those protesters, what with them being all suited up in body armor and helmets. Oh, wait, that's the police.

I'll bet she was saying something really mean to those guys, too, something like "You're twice my size, covered in armor, and heavily armed. How much of a pussy do you have to be to be waving a can of pepper spray in my face?" You, know, something really uncalled for like that.

Like that granny and pregnant lady in Seattle, or those female protesters trapped in that pen in New York City, I'm sure she had it coming.

Yes, here's what Seattle's Finest had to say about their little moment in the Sun:
SPD spokesperson Jeff Kappel wrote on the department’s blog that “Pepper spray was deployed only against subjects who were either refusing a lawful order to disperse or engaging in assaultive behavior toward officers.”

Elderly woman, pregnant woman hit with pepper spray at Occupy Seattle
Yeah, Granny had it coming.

Perhaps it's just another unfortunate byproduct of my upbringing, but somehow I got the notion before I left my teenage years behind that when you're strong you don't use that strength to hurt people who are weaker than you are. You take crap from them and, if it's necessary, you only use what force is necessary to keep them from hurting you. Do otherwise, and you become a bully at best, and a monster at worst.

Police are supposed to behave that way, too. We need them to show restraint, because we give them weapons and the right to tell us to do things we don't want to do. Most police, in most situations, undoubtedly do this, but some don't. When they don't, they're as much of a problem for the rest of us as the criminals they're supposedly protecting us from.

When it's done right, police work is a tough job. It requires far more forbearance than I can manage on my best day. You have to watch and listen patiently as the people you encounter use the same evasions and lies to get out of things they probably shouldn't be doing. You have to keep your temper in check when they don't do the things you are allowed, and in many cases required, to tell them to do. You have to maintain the perspective that if it were you in those situations, you'd probably be doing the same things. You have to do all that without loathing either them or yourself, so you don't become a crazy person or a monster. As study (PDF) after study has shown, many don't manage.

You won't see me jumping up and volunteering to do police work anytime soon.

Caption: Detroit police keeping an eye on all those Negroes who had it coming, back in 1967.

Image credit: Dunno source. Found it here

Still, incidents like the ones I've pointed out never seem to result in any punishment for the people involved. Cops who repeatedly use too much force, like Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna, never seem to get more than a slap on the wrist. These guys are a danger to their society, because every time they show up at a potentially hazardous situation, they are just the guys who can turn that hazard into a reality. It happened in Detroit back in 1967, in Brixton last summer, and in countless other places.

Sometimes, force is necessary. Sometimes, it's essential. Using it indiscriminately, however, can lead to far worse consequences. Force applied to people will often engender fear, loathing, anger, and mistrust. What it has never engendered, in my experience, is understanding or respect. Police need to have the wisdom and the patience to use force wisely. When they don't, what we're left with as ordinary citizens is to try to shame other cops and the politicians who supposedly are their bosses into keeping these guys in control, or getting them out of police work altogether.

I think you can expect to see more of these articles in the days ahead.

UPDATE: As Teddy Partridge explains, when force doesn't work there's always lying...

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