This latest National Review column on police seems to make the case that people have no reason to be afraid of police.
Sorry, but people really do have reasons.
To be clear, I’m not talking about political agitators looking for leverage, race baiters who scream of “racism” every time police get into a confrontation with a minority, or career criminals who try to distract from their own pitiful behavior. Anyone who knows anything about what is happening understands it’s not about racial prejudice.
I’m talking about ordinary people who follow the rules, even the dumb ones. They are afraid of police, too. This fear, as the American Conservative has pointed out, is both rational and reasonable.
As the National Review column shows, this fear is ardently denied by many police supporters. When they see the lights and sirens in their own rear view mirror, however, their hands tremble as they slowly, carefully reach for their proof of insurance – but only after being told to do so by the officer.
Why People Are Afraid of Police
Police are apt to justify their concerns for their physical safety. Yet it’s not listed among the top ten dangerous jobs in America. Loggers have more to fear of the trees they knock down.
Besides, working as a cop is like any other job. It is a choice. The potential hazards of their job does not give them permission to put others, who have no say in the matter, in danger out of concern for their own safety. If you aren’t willing to accept these unpleasant aspects of the job, seek employment elsewhere.
The biggest trouble is that, for so many, it is hard to see the situation from the opposite perspective.
They do not, for example, seem to appreciate the legitimate fears a citizen has when they are approached by a cop. It is situation unlike any other in their life. For all intents and purposes, they are under the total authority of a complete stranger they don’t know and don’t trust; this stranger can tell them what to do and they must comply under the threat of violence.
This stranger is also havily armed, wears a bulletproof vest, and operates under the protection of qualified immunity should he commit a crime. He also has a union that will fight tooth and nail to preserve his job. If this “stranger” is harmed by the citizen in any way during the interaction, a massive manhunt is launched, at taxpayer expense, to track down the offender that can include helicopters, dogs, armored cars, and SWAT teams. Outrage is expressed in the public alongside an outpouring of sympathy for the “stranger.” If he is killed, his family will be taken care of financially and his funeral will receive wide news coverage.
So what of the citizen? Yes, they can be armed, too, but even then it becomes a liability; the officer might threaten his life just for having it. If there is violence and the citizen harms the officer, he is de facto presumed guilty regardless of the circumstances. He is better off turning himself in before he is killed during the ensuing hunt. He is lucky if he is not roughed up while in jail.
If it is the officer who harms the citizen for illegitimate reasons, the officer might be placed on paid leave, but not arrested and certainly not interrogated by his own people. If the officer harms, say, an infant with a flash-bang grenade during a botched raid, the family is stuck with the bill.
So yes, an officer might be harmed. But there are many incentives to discourage people from doing so. The same is not in place to restrain the officer, who is given leeway to make mistakes as part of their job. Citizens, on the other hand, can lose their life over misinterpreted gestures.
This is what they fear.
There is No Certainty with Police
When they see an officer walking up to them on the street or as they sit in their car, a citizen instantly grows nervous. The officer might be friendly and just ask them to slow down – which happened to me. But he might be a power-tripping thug looking for an opportunity to exercise his control over you. Or, he might mistake you for a suspect in a cop killing and point a rifle at your head.
It’s a complete crapshoot.
Now someone may say the odds are small this could happen, but odds provide little certainty. We have an entire foreign policy built around small odds. It’s not that the odds favor the officer being a thug. It’s that if he is, there is nothing the citizen can do about it, and there is no way to tell until it’s too late.
The uncertainty breeds fear.
Interacting with Police Is Like Meeting a Wild Animal
It is very much akin to chancing upon a wild animal that must be placated, not because it is violent, but because it might resort to violence. Just as hikers are taught to hang their food in a tree and not in their tent to protect themselves from bears, so citizens are instructed to make it perfectly clear they pose no threat to an officer by keeping their hands on the wheel and making slow motions as they reach for the glove compartment. Much like the wild animal, if an officer resorts to violence out fear, no matter how irrational the reason may be, the burden is on the victim to prove they made themselves appear docile.
People may not know what qualified immunity is or what the Supreme Court has ruled on the duty of police, but they know how things work in the real world. Practically speaking, an officer has the power at any moment to physically seize someone for any reason and the person cannot resist in anyway whatsoever, even if they are being arrested for violating a law that doesn’t exist. They still cannot resist. They are expected to go through the booking process, sit in jail, and wait until a lawyer arrives before their side of the story can be heard. Reputations can be permanently destroyed within this time-frame.
If the citizen puts up any kind of resistance, even holds up their hand in protest, at best they will be charged with resisting arrest. At worst, they will be tased, beaten or, in Eric Garner’s case, choked to death by an officer using an illegal choke-hold. Anything happen to the officer?
People also know an officer can shoot them if they feel threatened, and short of it being outright murder, they face no danger of a jail sentence. They may feel remorse, but it’s of little comfort to a victim’s family, since there was nothing that could have been done on their end to prevent it. The person wholly responsible is not held responsible.
No matter what people may say, they know this, which is why they are quick to cooperate with all demands and address the officer with a tone of respect.
The root cause is a total imbalance of responsibility and authority, the inevitable product of the state. Certain people have authority over others who did not delegate that authority to them, and there is no responsibility on their part to properly use that authority or consequences when they abuse them.
Until this changes, all this talk about police reform will go nowhere.