It’s not the police, but the people they stop, who can prevent a detention from turning into a tragedy.
Sunil Dutta, a professor of homeland security at Colorado Tech University, has been an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department for 17 years. The views presented here are his own and do not represent the LAPD or CTU.
A teenager is fatally shot by a police officer; the police are accused of being bloodthirsty, trigger-happy murderers; riots erupt. This, we are led to believe, is the way of things in America.
It is also a terrible calumny; cops are not murderers. No officer goes out in the field wishing to shoot anyone, armed or unarmed. And while they’re unlikely to defend it quite as loudly during a time of national angst like this one, people who work in law enforcement know they are legally vested with the authority to detain suspects — an authority that must sometimes be enforced. Regardless of what happened with Mike Brown, in the overwhelming majority of cases it is not the cops, but the people they stop, who can prevent detentions from turning into tragedies.
Working the street, I can’t even count how many times I withstood curses, screaming tantrums, aggressive and menacing encroachments on my safety zone, and outright challenges to my authority. In the vast majority of such encounters, I was able to peacefully resolve the situation without using force. Cops deploy their training and their intuition creatively, and I wielded every trick in my arsenal, including verbal judo, humor, warnings and ostentatious displays of the lethal (and nonlethal) hardware resting in my duty belt. One time, for instance, my partner and I faced a belligerent man who had doused his car with gallons of gas and was about to create a firebomb at a busy mall filled with holiday shoppers. The potential for serious harm to the bystanders would have justified deadly force. Instead, I distracted him with a hook about his family and loved ones, and he disengaged without hurting anyone. Every day cops show similar restraint and resolve incidents that could easily end up in serious injuries or worse.
Sometimes, though, no amount of persuasion or warnings work on a belligerent person; that’s when cops have to use force, and the results can be tragic. We are still learning what transpired between Officer Darren Wilson and Brown, but in most cases it’s less ambiguous — and officers are rarely at fault. When they use force, they are defending their, or the public’s, safety.
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?