“Seattle Cop Punches Girl In Face!” Ethical?

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.

13 thoughts on ““Seattle Cop Punches Girl In Face!” Ethical?

  1. Speaking as one who’s been there, I can reaffirm your lecture. I can also uphold another lesson, a la Rodney King. Pictures CAN lie. The full context and background is necessary for evaluation. Those two young women were not only making a spectacle out of themselves (for whatever initial motivation) but were also collecting a crowd whose mood was turning ugly. I’m as much against socking a woman as any decent man. But that officer was faced with a confrontation that was already irrational and was spiralling out of control. From such small beginnings, a riot can get started. And a life threatening situation for a lone officer. He already had two physically hostile subjects at hand and little opportunity to back off. They were becoming increasingly aggressive. And, as you say, it’s a prime worry that, under such conditions, someone can seize your weapon and turn it on you. The officer opted for “shock treatment” to try and throw cold water on the fire. Apparently, it worked. But, had it gone on as it had much longer, a real tragedy might have insued. I’m only fortunate in that I never had to make such a decision.

  2. I saw the tape.
    I read your post.

    I have three “takeaways”…

    First, African Americans and whites see the world in radically different ways—especially when it comes to interacting with the police. As a rule, whites see cops as Officer Friendly. By and large, Blacks see cops as an X-factor who may or may not be there to help.

    Second, thank God for YouTube and all of the other modern-day tools of recording and sharing events. Videos like this should go viral. And, events like this should be taken seriously by all parties involved. (Can anyone say Oscar Grant?)

    Third, just because you (plural) don’t like something, doesn’t mean it’s unethical.

    A quick illustration for you to consider—
    The salon my wife goes to is one block off a college campus. Not the best neighborhood, but not the worst, either. If you’ve been to an urban college campus, you know what I mean.

    As it happened, a man was stabbed around the corner from the salon one day. A week or so later, after getting her hair done, my wife left the salon, walked to the middle of the block and crossed the street to go directly to her car. A police officer stops her, tickets her for jaywalking, runs her plates and driver’s license. The wife was not pleased. Neither was the husband. A major source of discontent with this scenario is that no one from the police department stopped by the salon to tell the ladies to be careful or offer tips for improved personal safety. And, after my wife reminded “Officer Friendly” of what had recently happened, he was nonplussed. In this case, a teenager may not have managed their emotions/reaction well. She took the ticket. We were going to file a complaint. My Dad said, “Leave it alone. You never know what the police will do.”

  3. You are very right, and that is a terrific and relevant anecdote. African-Americans have every reason to be distrustful of the police, though from the police’s perspective, it seems unfair. I didn’t deal with possible racial factors at work here, because it’s all speculation. Would the teen have been more respectful to a black officer? Would the cop have felt less threatened by a white teen? Would he have waited a little longer before resorting to force? Maybe, maybe, maybe. It’s unfair to assume either way, and I doubt we will ever know.

  4. And since when does YouTube tell the whole story? We have known for decades that “pictures DON’T tell a thousand words.” Pictures (including Christmas cards!) are photo-shopped, films are edited (on cell phones!), sound is absent, etc., etc.

    Clearly jaywalking is a minor offense, but if it’s so minor, why did the two girls take such hostile actions against the police? Why did they attack the police officer? Will blood tests prove they were on PCP or other drugs? Don’t know.

    But look at the stats: police officers spend more time investigating black-on-black crime than any other. Still, there is this ingrained prejudice against white cops. When blacks need them, they’d better be there. When blacks are the targets of white police action, then it’s racism.

    I blame black leadership for this. Get it together. Either you depend on the (primarily) white police force to protect, or you distrust them all. You can’t have it both ways. And so far, black leadership actually wants it both ways, which creates an impossible working condition for any metropolitan police force.

    YouTube is both a blessing and a curse. Take Congressman Etheridge for example. Etheridge absolutely assaulted a young reporter (a sucker punch and a head lock) before the young man could even get a question out… It’s on YouTube also. What’s happening about that? I’ve checked. White Congressmen protected by the media, the Capitol Police, the DC DA’s office. Frankly, we should be equally incensed about what power can buy in this country, not what a lone beat cop does when he feels threatened.

    Racism is one thing. Police departments are dealing with it. But what about pure elitism? Congressman beats up a reporter — on tape — and isn’t even questioned by police? Both should be priorities. Black women who hate authority are one thing, and the response of the police should be investigated. What about respected elected officials who think they can get away with assault and battery on young reporters on the street, AND WHO ARE NEVER QUESTIONED BY POLICE AT ALL? Anyone interested in equality should look at these two incidents together.

  5. I would remind “some” that the policeman could no more choose his race than any of us. I’ve run into insolent and arrogant civilian cops on occasion; both black and white. All are a disgrace. But when you deal with an officer on an immediate basis of “us vs. them”- and on a racial basis besides- nothing but trouble can result. Fair and respectful dealing among ALL citizens with one another is the only way in which a civil society can function.

  6. Thanks for raising this issue that some of us (including me) just overlooked. The comments show that you’ve started a useful conversation–one your readers can learn much from.

  7. Pingback: Apology and Correction: Wrong Link! « Ethics Alarms

  8. I don’t think we got the whole story. And I do not think that she should have struggled like that, and I DEFINITELY DO NOT THINK she should have been struck. The usual penalty for jaywalking is a fine. Whatever happened was not over that jaywalking..at least i do not think it was.

    • Meh: What do you think a police officer should do if a bystander interferes with him doing his job, gets in his face, pushes him, and won’t back off? I’m curious. Run away? Let her keep assaulting her? Choke hold? Mace?

  9. How stupid do you need to be to fight a cop? What would you think that would happen? That he would run away crying?
    We have a “similar” story in Montreal where a teen got shot to death by the police because his brother was about to get arrested. It happened in a poor area of the city where the police already has a bad name so it became a huge story.

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