Don’t Cop an Attitude with a Cop Who Has an Attitude

Not exactly what Sunil Dutta said in a Washington Post column a couple days ago, but the import is there. Dutta is a 17 year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department and has been an instructor in homeland security at Colorado Tech University. While the column is more even-handed than the quote below from Dutta’s column, it encapsulates the problem which this Views post is about–too many police officers have an attitude problem of their own:

Even though it might sound harsh and impolitic, here is the bottom line: if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long?

Yes, being a cop is dangerous, often thankless job. Tasked with enforcing traffic laws, handling domestic violence complaints, catching robbers, burglars, murderers and all manner of criminals is no easy thing. Any traffic stop can lead to serious harm or death at the hands of a wacko. So it is not perhaps surprising that patience can grow thin when a “routine” encounter with a citizen who responds with righteous indignation at the officer. At the same time, even being a white male (as I am), I have on occasion been questioned by an officer about a driving infraction. As a member of the Virginia Bar I observed a friend stopped for a traffic violation across divided street, upon calling out to the person the cop told me to keep moving if I didn’t want to be charged with obstructing traffic. On another occasion, after having called police myself about a young driver having struck a kid on a bicycle (in front of MY HOUSE), I approached the cop’s car window to ask about the situation and he said, imperiously, “can I help you?” I explained my concern and he basically said, move on, it’s not your concern–I’m handling it. Innocuous encounters? Yes, especially in contrast to what young black males experience on a regular basis. Other interactions I have had have been more courteous.

The point is, there is a problem with police officer socialization. The fact is that cops are supposed to “protect and serve”–not demand deference as if citizens are subjects and they are emperors. Again, as a white male, I have been privileged not to receive much in the way of abuse at the hands of officers. But I have witnessed the attitudes of cops toward others–black, white, brown or otherwise. I have no doubt (abundant statistics prove it) that young black males have been the subject of profiling–stopped all out of proportion with their representation in the population and in proportion to their actual criminality. From that fact comes a deep frustration and resentment on their part–which manifests in the form of challenges to the authority which cops with an attitude make no bones about displaying. Throughout America excessive force is used all too often by police. Prosecutors, courts and fellow officers (especially) give them the benefit of the doubt and seldom is even deadly excessive force punished.

So, my response to Sunil Dutta is: Don’t even think of flaunting your authority over the people who do pay your salary; don’t even think your position entitles you to disrespect the people you are supposed to serve and protect NOT demand obedience from! Training to prevent sexual harassment, racial bias, etc., are frequently conducted at workplaces throughout America–no doubt included at police departments. Those courses are often the butt of  jokes and do not typically enjoy great success at achieving desired outcomes absent severe punishment for infractions. But retraining and re-socialization of police officers needs to happen NOW with real consequences for those who just don’t get it–like Dutta. Thousands of cops do a great job and treat people impartially and courteously, unfortunately, they are part of a system which tolerates cops with an attitude, an attitude that can have deadly consequences.