Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Lawful Orders and Unlawful Conduct

An incident at Spring Valley High School in Richland county in South Carolina has gone viral after cell phone video of the incident was posted on the web.  The incident shows the a police officer, identified by students as officer Ben Fields, approaching a 16 year-old female student and asking her to leave the classroom.  The student refused, as she had refused the teacher and refused (apparently) the school’s guidance counselor to do the same.  When she refused the officer appears to try to grab the girl’s arm/hand and the student pulls away from him.  He then grabs her around the neck, she looks to in part stand up and also to have been dragged upward by the officer.  She and the desk she is in then flipped over backward hitting the floor (the officer stepped back and out of the way).  He then grabbed her arm and dragged her out of view, apparently dragging her headfirst into a wall where he took her arms and handcuffed her.  She and another male student were arrested at the scene and were potentially to be charged with disturbing the peace.

Now, first things first.  This student behaved badly, and badly is an understatement.  She refused to stop being a distraction, she refused to comply with the policies of the school on conduct and use of electronic communication in the classroom.  She refused to stop when asked, and did so repeatedly.  She refused her teacher, a counselor and the officer.  She deserved punishment, even suspension for her conduct.  Furthermore, she refused the orders of a police officer.  Whether those orders can be considered lawful orders, given that she was seemingly not violating the law (unless the school had ordered her removed from the premises which they hadn’t), consequently the officer was attempting to get her to adhere to school policy, not the law (or so it seems) and so his orders would not, seemingly, carry the weight of the law and so entitle him to act as if she were breaking the law (when she seemingly was not).

Furthermore, I raised my kids to obey the orders of police officers “no matter what” unless the officer were telling them to do something harmful to themselves or to others and then only to decline to do so with a comment like, “Officer, I mean no disrespect, but I do not believe it is lawful for me to obey you, I would like you to call my parents and an attorney.”    This student had no such claims.  The officer was not asking her to do something physically or emotionally damaging (getting off your phone/not texting isn’t emotionally damaging) and she was bound by common sense if nothing else to obey.  She was also bound by reason and good judgment, pissing off a cop is a bad idea in nearly any circumstance.  So, I can agree she behaved stupidly, if not unlawfully. 

And that’s where it stops.  This officer didn’t have the right to react with force out of proportion to the offense.  Let’s assume she indeed broke the law by not obeying him, he has the right to arrest her, but he does not have the right to assault her.  He has the right to affect that arrest, but he does not have the right to assault her.  That’s in part where this controversy starts (but hardly where it ends).  Many cops, and many people who carte blanche support cops, believe that “anything goes” if a cop tries to arrest you and you put up any sort of resistance.   Should we then allow cops to beat someone into submission if they pull back there hand?  DO we allow it?  The answer is, no we do not.  The officer here had a responsibility if this were an adult, to act in proportion to the original offense.  There simply was no need to try to affect a physical arrest.  She was doing nothing more than sitting on someone’s doorstep longer than they wanted.  Turning that into a physical confrontation was HIS choice, and a choice cops all-to-often make, namely, to become aggressive and physical because the person they are talking to isn’t as respectful as the cop likes.   

But that’s not what was the case here, this wasn’t an adult.  It was a 16 year old.  Cops, as with ALL adults, have to temper, MUST BE TRAINED TO TEMPER, there reactions to the person they are dealing with.  16 year olds are kids, sure they could carry a gun, but there was no question this kid wasn’t presenting a physical threat to the officer.  They (16 year olds) make bad, even stupid, decisions.   They behave badly, just as this student did.  It is the job of the “adult in the room” to remember to be the “adult in the room.”  This police officer was fired because he didn’t follow protocol, he used excessive force for the given situation (the person wasn’t violent and wasn’t presenting a danger), but he also used excessive force given the “perpetrator” (if we want to call her that).  He needed to de-escalate, not escalate.  Would he have been “ok” if this had been a 12 year old?  I suppose some would say “depends on how big he/she were” but that’s not true, what if it were a 5 foot 2 inch , 160 pound 6 year old?  (they happen).  The judgment isn’t on his/her size, it’s on his her maturity, cognition, and decision-making skills.  I have a 16 year old, she’s great, but she’s not an adult.  She makes good choices, she also makes not-so-good choices.  His job, as a police officer, is to show extreme discernment, far beyond that of regular civilians, in when to use and when NOT to use force.   He erred massively here.  She was a child acting out, we don’t throw them to the ground, we don’t put them in head locks or arm bars, unless they present a danger to themselves or someone else, and we sure as hell don’t slam them headlong into a wall.

Last, and my daughter pointed this out when I said I thought this cop would have done this with anyone, it was his pre-disposition to using force, she said that maybe, but maybe not too.  It is possible, she said, that this cop would well have reacted differently had she been Caucasian rather than African-American.  I started to say “no” and then thought better of it because, you know, there’s just way too much evidence out there of differing reactions by police based on race.  So, while this cop behaved incorrectly with respect to the situation, it may ALSO be true that he behaved incorrectly, out of protocol and in a way he wouldn’t have had it been a pretty young 16 year old white girl.  In thinking about it, there may well have been three problems, one is a cop who took his authority FAR too far, two was a student who behaved like a “stupid kid”, and three, the one that gets people fired up ALONG with the first problem, it may well be we had a police officer who became physical when he would have otherwise not, in part because of the student’s race.  Before you dismiss her complaints, ask yourself, are you 100% sure (or even 90%) that this officer would have treated a white student identically?  If so, why? 

This officer could have sat down with the girl, found out what was going on (her mom had died a couple weeks before), he could have simply drug the desk out, with her in it, he could have asked the teacher and the rest of the students to leave for a moment (there already was a major disruption, so please don’t tell me that would have been a worse one that watching her get drug around the room), in short, he had options.  He failed to use them.  She behaved unacceptably, but unacceptably from a SCHOOL’s perspective, not the law’s.  The remedies here were those afforded the school (punishment, detention, suspension, expulsion).  We don’t kill people for jaywalking and we sure don’t kill kids for it, more important still, we don’t kill black kids and give white kids a stern talking to.

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