Tag Archives: Darren Wilson

Don’t Treat A Cop Like a Teacher

So to build on an idea from my last post:

Unlike most people who aren’t police officers, many high school teachers, particularly those in high poverty areas, can say they know what it’s like to be faced with a furious teenager who might possibly be armed, high, both–or, as is usually the case, neither.

As one of those teachers, I know, for example, that when Ezra Klein says Darren Wilson’s story about Michael Brown’s actions is simply not credible, Ezra’s either showing his white privilege or simply not credible himself.

However, I also know that when others claim that Darren Wilson had a reasonable belief that his life was in danger simply because a large black teenager was charging him, well, not so much. Not simply from that.

The sequence of events: 1) Brown mouthing off and refusing to get out of middle of street, 2) Wilson moving his car to block Brown and Johnson, 3) Brown attacking Wilson in his car, hitting him and grabbing for his gun, 4) Brown running away, 5) Brown turning around and charging.

If I leave out the gun grab and play out that same sequence of events, I still envision Wilson shooting Brown. A nearly 300 pound young man was charging a police officer after having assaulted him in the car. Of course it was reasonable to shoot Michael Brown. The kid was out of control. Who wouldn’t feel endangered in that situation, in fear of his life?

Well, high school teachers in high poverty schools, for one. My employment has been in relatively mild Title I schools*, but I have frequently faced down angry, hostile, potentially violent teens. I know teachers who’ve had kids get violent, and the stats back this up: 3-5% of teachers are physically attacked. And surely most teachers in high poverty schools have spent time trying hard to talk down a potentially violent kid, even if Plan B is throw something and leave the room. Better that than screwing up his life by assaulting a teacher.

But then there’s the grab for the gun. This excellent comment from cro on my last post agrees with everything I know from frequent viewing of Numb3rs episodes: taking a law enforcement officer’s gun is a Very Bad Thing. Cro, my police officer commenter, says “…you are under orders to kill that person if necessary to retain your weapon.”

I have no reason to doubt cro–hey, he’s an anonymous commenter on my blog!–but if he is correct, then Darren Wilson had a second line of defense that hasn’t gotten as much play. This defense is not a “reasonable person” defense, but a “cop defense”. Attempts to take a police officer’s gun are punishable by deadly force.

My own belief, and I’m certainly not unique on this point, is that cops consider non-compliance a deadly force situation. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Michael Bell all died because they didn’t comply with police officers.

But “look, the guy didn’t do what I told him” isn’t a viable line of defense if the actions come under scrutiny, so instead these legal fictions are constructed, in which juries can consider a cop just a normal guy who was in fear of his life.

My effort to unpack Michael Brown’s actions and Wilson’s defense is not intended as an attack on police officers. Nor am I saying that teachers and cops have similar responsibilities or face similar dangers.

I’m just trying to resolve the paradox. It doesn’t seem credible that Darren Wilson thought he would die simply because Michael Brown hit him and then was charging at him. If an angry, irrational, violent teenager can so easily put an armed police officer in fear of his life, then many countries should be re-evaluating the regular danger that his teachers and oh by the way the other students at his school live in every day. And few schools have just one kid like that.

A DA who wanted to shoot down (oops, unintended) Wilson’s claim that he feared for his life might have subpoenaed teachers from Michael Brown’s high school, an extremely violent environment which had recently graduated Michael Brown, and asked them about a typical day. That would be an interesting switch, wouldn’t it? Usually witnesses testify to what a great guy the victim was, the “gentle giant” in Brown’s case. Instead, bring on teachers who say “Yeah, he’s just a wild guy. Always going off, threw things at teachers when they pissed him off. But he always calmed down and took his suspension like a good sport. Scared? Naw. It’s pretty common at this school.”

It might be more difficult to convince a jury that Darren Wilson was endangered if unarmed, middle-aged teachers described getting a faceful of pepper spray while trying break up a fight between two girls. Such testimony might cause questions about a 6’4″ police officer’s claim that his pepper spray and night stick weren’t sufficient self-defense, given his choice not to carry a taser.

But such testimony would make it harder to sell the polite fiction of “reasonable belief” while actually upholding the unwritten rule that says, “obey the cops or sh** happens”. This rule holds true even if you’re a Presidential pal; Henry Gates and the President no doubt expected far worse to befall James Crowley for arresting a quarrelsome, disobedient Gates than a forced beer summit, until poll numbers caused President Obama to change course.

Obviously, all sorts of vested interests aren’t terribly interested in observing this contrast. I’m personally not certain we’re better off in a country where we all don’t fear cops, so perhaps preserving the polite fiction is the best of several bad options.

But then you have the disconnect, a dilemma captured by Robert Heinlein (thanks to commenter Mark Roulo for the reminder). Kids who live in poverty receive profoundly mixed messages about adults in authority. Angry, sometimes violent, adolescents attend high schools and are rarely if ever killed on campus for being a threat. Yet at the wrong time, in the wrong situation, these young men can be killed by police officers, supposedly for threatening the officers lives, more likely for being defiant and violent in ways not dramatically different from their high school behavior. Thus my observation, “One might say Michael Brown is dead because he was foolish enough to treat a cop like a teacher.”

So from here I see two clear questions.

First, does the systemic bias towards forgiveness and second chances in public schools create additional dangers for adolescents who get the wrong idea about the role of state authority in their lives?

Second, does the fact that teachers can handle the same students that cops claim put them in danger point to ways in which cops could mitigate their harsh reaction to defiance without using their guns? Leave aside, for the moment, the legitimate question as to whether it would diminish police authority. If Darren Wilson hadn’t had a gun, does anyone really believe he’d be dead instead of Brown?

I have my own thoughts on the first question, some of which I’ve discussed obliquely.** My thoughts do not include any foolhardy notions that school choice, accountability, higher test scores, or the insane notion of corporal punishment will help us find the path towards salvation.

I have some thoughts on the second point, too, since I do believe Darren Wilson would have survived Michael Brown’s charge without a gun.

However, let’s get caricatures out of the way. Cro reminds me that most cops, like teachers, often look for ways to defuse situations. I agree, and never thought otherwise. I do not see police officers as tyrannical bruisers, polar opposites to kind and tolerant teachers.

But then Cro starts his comment with an equally ridiculous caricature, conflating teachers with social workers. Um, no.

Old joke I first read in a Dick Francis novel:

“A man was beaten and robbed by thieves, left bleeding and unconscious in a gutter. Two sociologists came along, gasped in horror. One said to the other, ‘The man who did this needs our help.'”

I can’t speak for sociologists and social workers, but anyone who thinks this caricature applies to teachers isn’t paying attention. High poverty schools don’t offer cottony platitudes of love and understanding, supporting and excusing victims for all their actions. They have a wide range of reactions and consequences: some planned, some spur of the moment, and some forced on them by public policy. Paragraphs 3 and 4 of cro’s comment are just insanely off-base. I know many reformers think this way as well, think that “No Excuses” philosophy is something public schools reject because they don’t want to be mean.

Begin by assuming that cops and teachers have a great deal in common when working with at risk populations, but have widely different constraints.

The question, to me, is to what degree do we want to tighten constraints on police or loosen the constraints on public education? Is there a way we can do this that will help at risk teenagers get the multiple chances they sometimes need to get it right, without putting their lives at risk or endangering public safety?

I’m not sure any solutions get past “do what the cop says, or else”. But perhaps our priorities will change. As John Podoretz wrote, after the Wilson non-indictment, “Americans have often responded to an era of relative calm by deciding that the authorities have been too restrictive and cruel — resulting in a subsequent period in which greater laxity led to higher rates of crime.” If there was a way to thread the needle, to be authoritative without as much cruelty, without it leading to more crime (which I agree is a risk), that’s a discussion worth having.

*******************************************************************

*My view, entirely anecdotal: Dealing with kids who’ve been ensconced in homogenous, multi-generational, welfare-reliant poverty is a very different and more difficult task than working with kids equally poor, but living in a racially and socio-economically diverse area. This difference is not related to test scores, and of course both highly motivated and incredibly unmanageable kids are found in both groups. Again anecdotally, the violence is much less of a problem in the second group. This is why it’s harder to set up charters for the suburban poor–both kids and parents tend, on average, to like their schools.

**

  1. Start with Besides, public schools are held accountable in all sorts of ways to the end,
  2. Start with charter schools succeed because of their ability to control students, not teachers to the end.

Strategizing Horror

When I watch TV news, it’s Fox News–well, it usually is, except my current cable company doesn’t offer the channel and I’m moving soon enough that I haven’t bothered to change over. But I was out of town and oh, hey, look, Fox. I didn’t even know what show I was watching when suddenly….

You can see the whole 8 minutes of the Forbes on Fox segment here: Searching for Unifiers.

In a nutshell, David Asman and three panel members–Steve Forbes, David Webb, Sabrina Schaeffer–all observed that what Ferguson needed was more Polly Williams— black Democrats pushing for school choice. The key to fewer Ferguson incidents is educational freedom. Vouchers bring families together because they can’t just be passive recipients. “The people to blame [for Ferguson] are the Democrats and the teachers unions,” thundered Schaeffer. David Asman argues for giving poor parents the $12K it costs on average to educate a public school student, let them use that money for an elite private school to get a real education. (John Tamney, the one voice against the magic choice pill, said that academic outcomes are a result of kids and their parents, and that choice won’t fix that problem.)

Well.

So sure, the Forbes on Fox folks sounded like middlebrows because they can wallow in their own nonsense without fear of contradiction, and thus sound like a bunch of yutzes to anyone with a passing knowledge of the research, much less working experience educating poor kids. And remember, I actually watch Fox News, because I’m basically a Republican, if just across the border, and I find such yammering marginally more tolerable than similar nonsense at MSNBC or CNN, so I understand the context.

That’s not the point. Choice is a stupid idea, but whatever.

The point, the part that enraged me to the point that I haven’t done much but write this piece for the past 24 hours, is that Forbes on Fox engaged in political strategizing that I already find incredibly offensive and wrongheaded.

Briefly: Republicans attack teacher unions and exempt cops and firefighters from their cutbacks. These guys–and they are almost entirely white guys—are all given a pass because they traditionally vote GOP. So much better to attack teachers, whose list of job protections reads just like cops and firefighters except teachers don’t get overtime, generous retirement packages at 20 years, or disability, to try and scale back union protections without offending their own base. They can get to cops later—or, more likely, once the protections are scaled back, the cops will lose inevitably, leaving Republicans with cleaner hands. (If the Politico story is any indication, cops aren’t buying.)

This has been dismally ineffective in terms of moving the public opinion needle. Teachers are routinely well-represented in public respect polls–consistently above cops, generally below firefighters (who don’t even fight fires, dammit). Those most likely to attack teachers are politicians or their proxies (lobbyists), journalists, or business execs—all with very low rankings. So when this all gets too aggravating, I remind myself that journalists, politicians and business leaders attacking teachers is analogous to a bunch of carrion crows bitching about hummingbirds, in terms of their professional public respect.

The public policy needle has moved slightly more in their desired direction, but there’s a reason Bill Bennett calls the public education machine The Blob. I suspect, ultimately, that teachers will move off the political hot seat in a few years—possibly after the public is outraged at the utter waste of time and money now known as Common Core.

But to shill this during Ferguson is simply outrageous, for reasons best articulated by Jonah Goldberg. I quite like Goldberg despite his own tendency towards the middlebrow on teachers, as is evidenced in this diatribe on the evils of public unions that mentions teachers twice, the DMV once, and but neglects to criticize Walker for protecting cops and firefighter unions. He wrote a marvelous piece after the Newtown tragedy that you should read, saying What I dislike is the immediate rush to turn the slaughter into an any argument at all.

Yes. Bad enough that on ordinary days I have to listen to both Republican and Democrat politicians preach that education is a “civil rights” issue, that the reason the country must act to purge teachers is because of the immediate need of our disadvantaged youth. Let’s go ask the disadvantaged if their civil rights are violated more by cops or teachers, shall we? You think the high numbers in those “professional respect” polls are all coming from white people?

But when the world is watching riots occur because a white male cop shot a black male teenager, I find it beyond repugnant that Republicans of all ilk (and conservatives, whatever that difference is), decide to use the horror to blame teachers. Christopher Caldwell, another writer I admire, ends his piece with a school slam. Kevin Williamson of NRO blames defective schools 4 times in an article on Michael Brown that mentions—not blames— the police just once.

And no one objects. The left also bewails the schools but not the teachers, so they’re perfectly happy with the segue from–let’s just say it one more time–a white male cop shooting a black male teenager on a public street to see, this is what happens when schools suck for poor kids.

Let it be known that Darren Wilson resigned and was not fired. It would have been near impossible to fire him, as it is near impossible to fire all “bad” cops—because he’s got the gold-plated union protection that everyone in the public debate seems determined to pretend is available only to teachers.

But Darren Wilson isn’t a bad cop, you say. He had reasonable cause to fear for his life. Michael Brown shouldn’t have charged him.

I normally wouldn’t comment, but everyone else keeps dragging teachers into this mess, so I’ll point out that while I’m unqualified to judge Darren Wilson as a cop, I can say without question that using a teacher’s standards, he handled the encounter very badly. I have actual experience facing down very large male teenagers, be they black, white, Hispanic, or Pacific Islander. (I suppose there are large male south or east Asians, but frankly I’m considerably more terrifying than the many I’ve met thus far.) I have seen kids of all ages, genders, and incomes go from zero to boiling hot angry in seconds. I have seen kids make their lives miserable by not walking something back, and I’ve learned how to help them walk it back, how to ignore an outrageous insult or a blatant rules violation from a kid with an ankle bracelet who really needs a second, third, or tenth chance to reconsider willful defiance that will earn him a visit with his probation officer.

In Title I schools, the hard truth is that some days, some times, high school teachers face situations not dissimilar to the sort of situation Darren Wilson found himself in when Michael Brown and friend refused to get out of the middle of the road. You see a boy ambling around the courtyard and because you know he spends most of his time outside the classroom, you tell him in no uncertain terms to get back to class and on a bad day, the kid tells to f*** off. Or you tell an angry girl to put something away and she throws it across the room, just missing you (other times, it hits you, but then there’s no walking it back). You see a guy texting during class for the kajillionth time and you sigh and go over to take his phone away, and he smacks it into your hand with an expletive and then flips a pencil in your general direction, claiming it was an accident. All of these situations come from my own experience, and all of them are mild compared to the kids who flip out and physically attack teachers for telling them to put their cell phones away or trying to stop them from selling drugs. Despite these showier cases, we teachers are told constantly do not physically touch students. Even self-defense is incredibly iffy. And while relatively few teachers get attacked and occasionally killed by their students, the poorer the school district the more at risk the teachers are. We deal with obnoxious, angry, offensive, stoned, abusive teenagers as a not infrequent part of our job.

When Darren Wilson told the two kids to stop walking down the middle of the street and they mouthed off, he was dealing with irrational pain in the ass teenagers, quite possibly stoned or otherwise high, and that’s my turf, baby. And what you don’t do, if you are thinking about that teenager and your own responsibility to that teenager, is physically block the teenager to try and get him to follow your orders. You don’t want to ignore the slight, because that way lies a whole different side of crazy that we can’t have.

Here is a possible reaction from the viewpoint of a teacher, just to illustrate. You GET OUT OF THE DAMN CAR. You stand at a distance, stop all movement, and say, loudly, “HEY. What did I just tell you to do?”

“F*** OFF! I told you we’d be off soon!”

“Yeah, well SOON doesn’t protect you if a car comes by and for reasons passing understanding I don’t want you to get run over. So finish crossing the street!”

There are many things that could happen from that point, from grudging or even laughing obedience to the same headlong charge that ended Brown’s life. If Michael Brown charged me, I couldn’t get out my gun and start blasting. I’d just run or get in the car and drive away or get help or whatever, satisfying myself that he’d probably end up in jail because I’d sure as hell press charges.

I am not suggesting this as an alternative reaction for Wilson. Teachers are legally and morally responsible for the well-being of their students. Protecting students is their top priority. Darren Wilson isn’t a teacher. He’s a cop, responsible for public safety, and for a number of good reasons, public safety is determined to be best served if cops feel safe and unthreatened, which means challenges to their authority are akin to a death threat. He doesn’t have to help kids walk it back. He has a gun. Like anyone, cop or no, he can use that gun if he reasonably feels his life is in danger. Juries take a very broad view of “reasonable”, as we’ve seen time and again. One could say that Michael Brown is dead because he was foolish enough to treat a cop like a teacher.

This is why I laugh when politicians–usually Republicans–suggest that arming teachers could prevent another school shooting. Insane nutjob shooting up a school happens once every so often, scattered around the country. Teachers being put in fear of their lives happens every day. Give teachers guns, and “school shootings” will start to have a very different meaning. Which is why I think it’s a stupid idea despite being a second amendment purist.

Education is complicated. It’s incredibly difficult to educate those who have no interest or ability. School choice will not make kids polite to white cops. It won’t stop them from bullying liquor store clerks. It won’t make them any less likely to commit petty theft. It won’t get them better test scores, even if they were able to go to the best private schools, which is very unlikely. Elite private schools, or even expensive suburban public school districts, will never willingly corrupt their environments with low-income brats who walk down the middle of the street for no other reason than to inconvenience people with the wherewithal to purchase automobiles. The only schools that will take such kids are those legally required to do so: the public schools who do their best to educate those with no interest and ability (they do a pretty good job educating low income kids with one or the other, by the way). Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away..

Slamming teachers for the same job features that cops get a pass for purely to achieve a limited political objective is mildly irritating. Blaming teachers and schools in any way for the events in Ferguson is pretty pathetic. I’m amazed that elites on both sides of the spectrum seem to think it acceptable discourse.