It’s no secret that the actions of law enforcement agencies are under scrutiny the nation over – and for good reason. Whether it’s the advent of smartphones or a disturbing trend in police action, more and more examples are coming to light where those in authority are acting violently, disproportionately, and inappropriately towards citizens. One of the biggest problems with this phenomenon is that behavioral expectations should be much higher for those with lethal weapons, the ability to confiscate property, and the ability to imprison others. I am not here to argue that cops do not have the same right to self-defense as every other human does (they obviously do). I am stating the old platitude that with great power comes great responsibility, and pointing out that we are witnessing an important change: those with badges and guns switching from ‘protecting and serving’ to ‘law enforcement.’ This change has serious implications for everyday citizens.
It does not take much searching online to find video examples of officers acting irresponsibly, and while each situation needs to be judged in its own context, there are more than enough examples to justify concern (see Eric Garner’s death for selling untaxed cigarettes, Walter Scott fatally shot as he runs away from a cop, who then handcuffs him and renders no first aid, or the most recent incident where a Spring Valley High School student was thrown from her chair and dragged across a room for disturbing class). If you decide to watch the videos, you’ll likely notice that excessive (and sometimes lethal) force is used in these three examples. As with any organization, the actions of some individuals do NOT define the character of all, but it’s worth examining the deeper cultural implications of an organization whose members are “authorized” a much broader range of acceptable behavior.
What do I mean when I say a broader range of acceptable behavior? I mean that when one group of people (cops in this case) are allowed to use force or violence with relative impunity against others (citizens in this case) for not complying with demands, then a dangerous precedent is established, and further violence is likely to occur. Sidebar: There has been *some* amount of accountability in the cases above, but it’s also important to note that there was amateur video evidence in all three situations. Who is to say what happens when that is not the case?
Getting back to the great power / great responsibility discussion…Let’s take a look at two different traffic stops, and assess why someone in an authority position (read: with badge and gun) should be held to a higher standard of behavior. Spoiler alert: so people don’t die for minor, victimless “crimes.”
Deven Guilford: killed by Sgt Frost during traffic stop
Many people have not heard of Deven Guilford’s death in February 2015 after being pulled over for flashing a police cruiser whose lights were too bright (yes, you read that correctly). Here’s combined footage of the officer’s bodycam and Guilford’s cell phone (warning – this might make your blood boil):
If you watch and listen, you’ll notice a few things…
- Sgt Frost says that he has been flashed multiple times by other motorists that same night because his new headlights were incredibly bright. He already knows it’s an issue, and probably does not need to pull any more motorists over. Unless he’s patrolling for citations or trying to meet a quota.
- Guilford is undeniably acting like a punk, but does not pose a threat at any time to the officer – certainly not while he was in the car and arguing calmly. If all teenagers were shot for acting like punks, we would likely cease to exist as a species.
- There is a distinct sense that Sgt Frost is getting upset that Guilford is not complying, and thus he begins to escalate the situation…eventually leading to Tasing, physical altercation, and finally a fatal shooting.
Of note, Sgt Frost was cleared of any wrongdoing, and the family has since filed suit. Now, let’s contrast Guilford’s traffic stop to this one:
Unnamed motorist: goes ballistic during traffic stop, cop reacts awesomely
In this four and a half minute video (from 1992!), you’ll see the very different results of an officer acting with restraint, discretion, and even a bit of humor. Here’s the dashcam video:
What did you notice in this video as compared to the Frost-Guilford incident?
- The driver is noticeably upset: yelling, cursing, waving hands and arms, etc…even grabbing the clipboard from the trooper’s hands and ripping up a ticket. This is to be contrasted with Guilford’s truculent (but calm) manner.
- The officer does not let this faze him, and continues to proceed calmly and professionally, refusing to further escalate the situation.
- No one dies after this traffic stop.
The state trooper in this video acted exactly as I would expect from someone with years of training, and wielding great power (namely, the ability to cite or arrest someone). And let’s emphasize the third point again: NO ONE DIES. If we must have publicly-funded ‘defense’ (which is a discussion for another time), this should be the model to follow.