First let me briefly relay my own experiences with law enforcement:
When I was thirteen some friends and I were playing hide-and-seek (manhunt) in a neighborhood at night. Naturally someone thought we were burglars and called the cops. The cops showed up with guns drawn. We avoided being killed by complying with their directions and everything got sorted out. I was scary but OK.
When I was sixteen I was walking down the street one evening when two squad cars drove the wrong way down a one way street because I looked “just like someone who escaped from prison a few hours” before. I sat on the curb for a while, they cleared it up, and I was on my way.
When I was seventeen I was stopped for skateboarding on UC Berkeley property. The “cop” asked us about some graffiti nearby but couldn’t pin it on us. He then asked for ID. When I turned around to go to my backpack where my ID was he assumed I was running and proceeded to call four other guys to come help beat the crap out of me since with him being 6’2” and all muscled he clearly couldn’t handle my 5’10 120lb frame all by himself. I’m still pissed about it but time and maturity have taught me that if I’d said, “Sure officer, it’s in my bag right over there. Can I go get it?” then none of that would probably have happened. But I was young and trying to do what I was told, I just didn’t understand what it is that cops look for and more importantly, what they fear.
Cops are often constantly on high alert. How many times does a routine traffic stop turn into a shoot out? OK well, not very often but often enough that it has to be in the back of your mind every time you pull someone over. How often do people run from the police? Pretty often. Certainly enough that it’s probably annoying and you feel like beating someone up over it. The point is, understanding what cops are thinking and what they go through and what they’re looking for can help you avoid getting beat up.
But where do you start? It’s pretty simple. The first thing to remember is it doesn’t matter if you’re “right.” If you are right you will likely be vindicated in the end. However, you are not going to get a chance to show that you’re right unless you first do whatever the cop is telling you to do. Once the officer sees that you are compliant and not a threat they are less likely to beat the crap out of you and more likely to listen. People more worried about being right than not getting tased have gotten themselves in more trouble than we can ever know. In my experience if you get through the first few minutes of doing what the cop says and being respectful they can actually be pretty reasonable. If you start off with how you know your rights and you didn’t do anything and fuck them then you’re probably going to jail or getting smacked around whether or not you actually deserve it.
This is not to say that cops don’t need to dial it down and learn to better assess a situation. Clearly some cops are out of control and out to do harm for whatever fucked up reason. The guy who shot a defenseless young man on a BART platform is an example of cops who go too far with little provocation. A few years ago there was a case where the police, responding to a domestic disturbance, killed a deaf man in his own driveway because he was holding a rake and he did not understand their command to lay it down. Soon after another deaf man was severely beaten by police in a parking garage because police attributed his “aggressive” gesturing and “babbling” to being on drugs. Police officers need to be accountable for being able to read and react appropriately to different situations. We can help them. If we can stay calm and show that we’re not a threat it allows the officer time to assess without pressure.
Of course not everyone has the chances I’ve had to go to their trainings and discuss these things with law enforcement. I do think a little common sense and empathy can help. For example, do you perform better or worse at your job if someone is angry and contradicting you and being derisive just because you wanted to talk to them? Does anyone you work with have a chance of killing you? Would this add to your stress level? There have been a few high profile cases coupled with my own experiences that have shown me that the public in general just doesn’t understand police training. One case that exemplifies this is the Rosebud shooting in Berkeley several years ago. People I talked to were outraged that a woman who broke into the UCB Chancellor’s home with a knife, who then rushed at police with the knife, was killed. Many people at the time expressed to me that “They should have shot her in the leg or something.” This shows a basic lack of understanding borne of too much TV and to little knowledge of firearms. In my dealings with law enforcement I’ve learned that cops are taught to avoid firing their weapons if at all possible but if they feel they have to fire to empty their weapon and shoot to kill. Think about it, it’s hard enough to come to a decision to shoot someone (something I think many of us assume is taken lightly by police officers) but if you are in a situation where you feel like your life is in danger, your scared, stressed, and you have to make a quick decision are you also going to have the time and concentration to “just shoot them in the leg or something?” No. There is no nonchalance when it comes to firing a weapon. If there were people would be getting shot in the leg a lot more often. If you have to shoot someone you shoot to kill. There is no other option, there is no other reason. You shoot because you believe if you do not shoot someone else may die. Isn’t that how we want it? Don’t we want shooting to be the last resort? Don’t we want guns to only be used in life or death situations? Isn’t anything else just a slippery slope towards shooting jaywalkers in the leg? Besides there’s a simple way to avoid being shot by the police. Don’t break into anywhere and don’t rush at them with a knife. If you can do those two things your chances of being shot fall dramatically. But there’s a solution for you “shoot ‘em in the leg” types, a middle ground. It’s called the Taser.
The Taser allows an officer to subdue a suspect from a distance in a non-lethal but effective manner. There is clearly a time and place for a Taser to be used. For example, if you are a moron who wants to run onto a baseball diamond during a game you should expect to be tased. If you are somewhat peacefully speaking into a microphone at a meeting on your college campus you should not expect to be tased. What’s the difference? In some ways it’s a matter of time, proximity, and probability. For the famous “Don’t tase me bro” guy the cops had plenty of time to assess the threat, plenty of bodies to physically take the offender away, they were close enough to subdue him by hand, he did not appear to be any sort of threat, and he wasn’t trying to flee. He also had some reasonable reason for being where he was. In other words the Taser use here was completely out of line. Now look at the other guy. Here’s a dumbass running around attempting to elude capture, delaying the game, with no reasonable cause to be where he was, in a context where fans have assaulted players, coaches, and umpires in recent years. Also, I think it’s reasonable to have a strong deterrent to people doing something like jumping on a baseball field as opposed to having a strong deterrent to people peacefully expressing an opinion. Expressing an opinion is a right, criminal trespass is not. Again, it’s easy to avoid being tased at a baseball game, stay in your seat. I applaud the moron’s parents for basically siding with the police on this one. Conversely one should be able to assume that they can speak in an open public forum without being electrocuted.
So what’s the take away? It’s this, cops are people too. They are people who work in a dangerous and high stress job for too little pay. Yes, some of them are complete assholes. A smaller number are dangerous bordering on psychotic. Most of them can be completely reasonable and even helpful if you give them a chance and put them at ease. The citizen bears some responsibility in how cops react to them. It may suck to have to swallow your pride, forget that you’re “right,” and submit for a short period of time but it can be worth it. If you are able to do what it takes to set a cop at ease you may even be able to have a conversation and help change their perspective a little bit. I know it sucks to think, “I shouldn’t have to kowtow to these assholes just to avoid getting shot.” but that’s the reality. Would you rather be right, or dead? If you live you can always be right later on. You can sue someone or write angry letters, or try to get a cop fired or whatever recourse is available after the fact. But remember, even if it’s annoying, even if you’re sure you’re the subject of discrimination, if you keep your cool initially you can get what you want when interacting with police officers. There’s no other viable path. If you run, fight, or just act like an ass you will lose that interaction in that moment. You just have to remember that most of them are just honest people trying to do an honest job. If you ignore that and then you get tased, you have to look at your own culpability.