Friday, June 26, 2015

Solid Police Work Isn't the Problem

The accused Charleston church shooter being taken into custody without bloodshed or violence

By now, we’ve probably all seen the footage. Shot from a police dashboard camera, it depicts how North Carolina police peacefully captured the accused Charleston, South Carolina, church shooter. Having coaxed him to pull over, several officers surround him with drawn weapons, which they holster as they approach. Without audio, we cannot hear the words spoken, but police apparently persuade him, using only words, to surrender without a fight.

The surrender itself is remarkable. Mass shooters frequently die during their violence. Many commit suicide; others charge police, forcing them to shoot, a process nicknamed “suicide by cop.” But like accused Aurora, Colorado, theatre shooter James Holmes, the church shooter—whose name I’ve resolved to never reproduce—came quietly once police surrounded him. Coupled with his recent all-but-confession, one wonders what long-term strategy he has planned.

But I’ve felt alarmed by some friends’ responses to this arrest. Multiple people whose opinions I trust have expressed outrage that this arrest unfolded with textbook-perfect procedure. Where’s the force, the shouting, the flailing limbs and violent takedowns? Arrest footage seldom makes newscasts anymore if it doesn’t involve disproportionate violence, and good people of upright character, witnessing a by-the-book arrest, notice police malfeasance for its absence.

I understand this reaction. After watching cell-phone footage of NYPD officers choking unarmed Eric Garner to death, Officer Michael Slager shooting Walter Scott in the back, and Officer Eric Casebolt wrestling a skinny teenage girl into submission, a clean arrest looks suspect. But we must resist the cynical temptation to demand police treat white suspects as badly as they treat non-whites. That attitude essentially considers brutality normative.

The reactions which dominated verbal conversations, text messages, and my Facebook feed, stem from wounded senses of justice. Advancing technology has turned ordinary witnesses into potential journalists. Watching Officer Slager plant a firearm on Scott’s lifeless body, something we’ve read in cop dramas but seldom actually seen, enflamed our sense of umbrage. But if we treat such actions as ordinary, we functionally permit police state tactics.

Officer Michael Slager shoots Walter Scott—a textbook example of how to do everything wrong

My friends’ common reactions, being well-founded, probably deserve some response. So here’s what I’ve heard many people lament about the Charleston church shooter’s notably peaceable, impeccable arrest:
But he murdered nine people!
Remember, from the justice system’s perspective, he’s accused of murdering nine people. Police and other justice professionals cannot treat him as guilty until some judgement is reached, whether through trial, plea, or other legal mechanism. We cannot permit police to assume anyone, even very heinous killers, are guilty a priori, because that’s a slippery slope guaranteed to land on many minorities and other disfranchised populations.
But the police holstered their weapons and approached him with trust!
Yes, and they should have. Many police are trained, and all should be, to de-escalate potentially tense or violent situations. Because cornered suspects may have high adrenaline, they often perform acts they live to regret. Eric Garner, feeling harassed, started shouting and waving his arms; rather than de-escalate, officers applied an illegal chokehold, making an already bad situation worse, even before the hold killed Garner.

Other recent events reflect this trend. Officer Slager drew his weapon on an unarmed suspect, turning a tense situation violent. Officer Casebolt used moves on a bikini-clad teenager that would’ve been appropriate on a PCP-addled bouncer. These situations intensified needlessly, creating hostility that didn’t exist before police action. Pausing, taking a breath, and speaking calmly, as North Carolina officers did, might’ve prevented blowback and saved lives.
But they provided him Burger King!
Admittedly, the optics of police buying the Charleston shooter name-brand fast food looks bad. But judges have discarded otherwise clean arrests because police withheld food from hungry suspects, and most police stations lack kitchens. Starchy vending machine food might’ve looked less awful, but considering current dietary trends, feeding suspects Ding-Dongs may soon constitute an Eighth Amendment violation.

The wrestling move that made Eric Casebolt possibly America's most hated cop

These three common objections, and others similar, stem from having witnessed truly epic police misconduct looped through the 24-hour news cycle recently. We’ve seen cops do truly appalling things and escape official consequences, so often that it looks normal. Police officials—or, in Trayvon Martin's case, guerilla civilians falsely claiming police authority—recently seem a law unto themselves.

But we must avoid accepting such treatment as normative. In demanding police treat this suspect as badly as Eric Garner, offended liberals are essentially demanding more widespread abuse of police authority. People of good conscience should refuse that mindset. The Charleston shooter’s arrest was clean, safe, and legal. It should be the standard, not the exception.

No comments:

Post a Comment