Tag Archives: Eric Garner

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.

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*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.

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  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.