Avoiding the escalation

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 158 views 

Another police officer is dead, murdered in the streets of Memphis, Tennessee. Only a few weeks ago, two police officers were gunned down on the streets of Jackson, Mississippi.

Murders of cops don’t trend on social media quite like murders of lions. Maybe the modern day outrage culture, in all its silliness, just expresses itself more based on the rarity of the event. A cop dying might seem more predictable. A lion named Cecil is a far cooler topic for dramatically righteous outrage.

But even given that cultural caveat, it is tragic that most Americans would recognize the names of Sandra Bland and Michael Brown, yet almost none could name the three officers who were murdered while in the line of duty. I didn’t name them just now to prove my point. You likely drew a blank.

There’s a worrisome trend today. It’s not just the lack of equivalent outrage at the murder of those who willingly protect us. What’s even more troubling is that so many seem to think institutions like law enforcement don’t demand respect and deference. Most recently, this tragically manifested itself when Sandra Bland was pulled over in Texas. She was an African-American woman who, during a routine traffic stop, refused to comply when asked to put out her cigarette and other simple orders. It needlessly escalated. She was arrested, and three days later took her own life by hanging herself in a jail cell.

The officer was overly aggressive and hateful. Bland seemed defensive and argumentative. The dash-cam video almost makes you sigh. It was all so avoidable and so predictable. Both had chips on their shoulder. Both should have been smarter. It should never have ended the way it did.

My experiences are limited to that of white male from a low-crime city. I’ve admittedly never been a victim of hostility based on race alone. Regardless, I’ve dealt with an angry police officer. Three weeks ago, I was on an involuntary road trip through South Carolina. My companions and I were stranded by flight problems in Johnson City, Tenn. We rented a van and hit the road for a seven-hour trip to our final destination.

I drove and I sped.

Close to a state line, in the middle of a curve and at the bottom of a big hill, a state trooper was waiting. He threw on his lights. Not knowing the road, I drove a couple hundred yards to get around the curve, thinking it might put me past the guard-rail that limited the shoulder access. As soon as I saw it didn’t, I pulled over.

The trooper approached the car, dip in mouth, yelling and waving his arms, asking why I hadn’t stopped before the curve. Now it was more dangerous for him, he said. He was right. I told him I was unfamiliar with the road and was only trying to help. He literally exhaled deeply, paused, then hastily wrote me a ticket and did a u-turn to presumably go back to his speed trap hiding spot.

He was rude and argumentative. When he abrasively told me his life was in danger even though I pulled over within 45 seconds of him turning on his lights, I wanted to tell him to get a new speed trap if he didn’t like the logistics of the one he was using. But I didn’t. It wasn’t a smart thing to do. I wasn’t having the best day, but he was the law enforcement official and I was breaking the law. Maybe he wasn’t having a good day either.

It’s true that some cops are jerks. Some are bigger jerks than others. It’s true that not every encounter with law enforcement is the same. Overly aggressive cops and law-breakers with attitudes both cause problems. But as a rule, I think I know who deserves a little more grace.

If someone is doing a job I don’t want to do, I try to be patient while they do it, whether it’s the janitor or the police officer. Giving respect to authority isn’t about being black or white. It’s really just about being smart, but also about showing respect to someone who almost certainly has a harder job than you.

Cops walk up to cars not knowing if they’re about to get a bullet in the face. They confront murderers, abusers and thieves. They see the worst of society everyday, while the rest of us might occasionally glance it. When they mess up, they pay the price.

I only hope that our outrage-culture of today isn’t making the dangers worse by encouraging an attitude of insubordination towards law enforcement. That’s bad for everyone, but especially the cops who must deal with the consequences of society’s bad behavior.

Cops like Benjamin Deen, Liquori Tate, and Sean Bolton, in case you needed the reminder.