Thursday, January 1, 2015


I think everybody needs to be educated. Just because a police officer contacts you, and asks for ID, it doesn't mean that you've done anything bad. It's just, you know, they're questioning for whatever reason. You know, a lot of people instantly think and get defensive, and, you know, feel like it's a bad engagement, when it could just be for something completely simple. You never know exactly what their reasoning is but, you know, I think that people just kind of need to follow through with that and, you know, just do what they're asking you to do, within reason.
Diane Langdon, pro-police march organizer. "Seattle Marchers Rally For 'Police Lives Matter'"
"Within reason." But who defines "within reason?" The officer? The citizen? The police department? A citizen review board? The courts? The media? The court of Public Opinion? Mrs. Langdon? It's tempting to use the term as if it were an objective description, something that never changes regardless of the circumstances at hand in the moment, or the history of the people in question.

And this becomes the issue at hand. Mrs. Langdon acknowledges that when a citizen is stopped by a police officer, that citizen may not know what the officer is thinking. In this regard it's worth noting that the officer not only doesn't have to explain themselves, but is allowed to lie. (Of course, lying to an officer is a crime.) Yet her advice is to keep an open mind. After all, the officer's interest could be "completely simple." And it's not like an officer can use anything suspicious or potentially incriminating against you. Oh, wait, they can. And so you have asymmetry in both information and power, the end result of which is a defacto requirement that a citizen trust police officers.

And that places citizens in a bad position, especially when they're dubious about the intent of the officer(s) they are interacting with. In such a case, how does one understand, in the moment, whether or not what an officer is asking is within reason? And it's worth keeping in mind that this isn't simply an academic question. Coming to the conclusion that an officer is being unreasonable, and therefore, resistance or disobedience is warranted can have potentially fatal consequences - especially in today's environment, where police officers have taken non-compliance to be tantamount to an active threat against them. For many people, active acquiescence is the rule of the day: simply submit to whatever the officer asks of you and determine to have it all sorted out later. But that requires a level of belief in two things - that the criminal justice system, at all levels a) acts in good faith and b) can reliably sort out the innocent from the guilty.

It's worth keeping in mind that an arrest record, regardless of how it turns out, can follow a person for life - and can be remarkably difficult to clear up, even in cases where no charges are ever filed. And once an arrest is entered into the FBI database (where it may remain for more than a century), the fact that a local police department may no longer have a record of the incident can make it even more difficult to have the record set straight. And this fact gives police officers a remarkable level of power. If a department submits even misdemeanor arrests to the FBI, something that appears not very serious on its face can result in a lifetime of stigmatization - especially given the fact even an arrest without a reported final disposition means, that as far as the federal government is concerned, a person now has a criminal record.

Being a police officer is a difficult, risky and often thankless job. I won't argue that. The murders of two officers in New York recently, and Seattle police officers being caught up in a rolling gunfight overnight are testaments to the dangers of the position. But the flip side of that is that the job comes with a remarkable amount of power and authority. And the issue that many people have with police today is a concern that there isn't the oversight to balance them. Supporters of the police who advocate simple obedience do nothing to alleviate those concerns. It's true that in a society prizes seeing everyone as an individual, allowing a few bad apples to spoil the barrel seems unfair. But unless an apple is visibly rotten, how does one know that the apple they have in hand is safe, within reason?

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