YouTube is a wonderful resource that enriches our entertainment, makes us laugh, holds people in the public eye accountable for their actions, and give us better access to current events than ever before. In the area of police conduct, it has exposed abuses that might have otherwise escaped scrutiny. It is also eventually going to get a police officer killed.
The viral video of a Seattle cop punching a teenaged girl in the face has been getting the Rodney King treatment from the broadcast media and the web, with the immediate assumption that his actions are per se proof of police brutality and excessive force. All the societal hot buttons are stacked against the cop: he punches a woman (“You don’t hit a girl!“); she’s a teen (It’s an adult beating a child!); she’s black, and he’s white (Racism!); the underlying offense that triggered the incident was as minor as you can get. (“Jaywalking?”) Predictable, the sensation-hunting news outlets and the usual knee-jerk critics of the police (the N.A.A.C.P. and the A.C.L.U.) have pounced. This is neither a fair nor a competent way to examine a complex incident.
As Warner Wolf used to say, “Let’s go to the videotape!”
To begin with, the first girl being cited for jaywalking begins struggling, arguing and resisting the officer. That loaded the situation. Her duty, as a citizen, is to accept the citation and challenge it in court. If the public sees that resisting lawful police authority tilts the scales of sympathy toward the resister, the police will not be able to do their jobs.
It appears that the first girl was about to be arrested for her confrontational behavior when her friend pushes herself between them and makes aggressive contact with the officer. The two teenaged girls involved are not much smaller than the officer. Their age and gender, in a physical confrontation, can’t be his concern. His concern has to be his own safety.
I asked a well-respected metropolitan police chief about the situation. “Cops are trained to protect themselves.” he wrote. “Cops know that if someone overpowers them or is somehow able to get close enough to get their gun, that is very bad. Many police officers have been killed with their own gun. Weapon retention is a huge training point for us. I’ve never been more aggressive than the times I thought someone was trying to grab my gun. The “kill or be killed” instinct kicks in when you feel someone’s arm pressed up against your side.”
He agreed that the size of the officer makes a difference. “What threatens a big strong police officer is different that what may threaten a 5’2”, 130 lb. officer. And those on the smaller side come in both genders. Is the threshold for using deadly force different depending on the size of the Officer…the size of the assailant…the answer is yes. The trouble is, it is not an exact science…and the threat and the fear are in the eye of the beholder. Some of these of tough cases to review and judge. I do it every day.”
After viewing the video, the police chief concluded:
“This Officer used the force necessary to defend himself and get the situation under control. Often, doing so is not pretty. In fact, it can be shocking to those not typically used to seeing these kinds of fights in real life. Did the Officer punch the girl once? [Yes.] Did he stop punching her when she stopped her aggressive actions, or when he got her under control? [Yes.] If he did, then he complied with his training. The Officer will have to be able to articulate the reason he used the force that he used. My guess he will be able to do so.”
What is going on here? What is going on is that the public simply does not have the same perspective as the police, who are responding to known risks and police training based on long, and sometimes deadly, experience. The fact that an officer’s reaction to a situation looks “ugly,” as this did, doesn’t mean that the response was wrong or excessive, as the public and media assumes. I thought the officer was a little quick to throw that punch myself. But as the police chief explained, it felt a lot different from the officer’s perspective. He’s the one in potential peril; he’s the one with experience. We should not assume that our judgment is better than his.
Was the girl going for the cop’s gun? Probably not. Could she have been? It has happened. Is it worth a punch to the face of a teenaged girl to make 100% certain that he isn’t overpowered or shot?
If fear of YouTube condemnation by people who have no understanding of police work is going to inhibit officers from protecting themselves, someone is going to get killed. Maybe even by a teenage girl.
The ethical way to prevent this scenario is for citizens, young and old, of all races, to respect and obey the police.