Last week, Francis Pusok was badly beaten by ten sheriff’s deputies in San Bernardino. I’m sure the deputies will claim that they were very, very afraid. It seems that police officers spend their entire lives in great fear. There is apparently no more cowardly group of people than police officers. Now it seems that just about every group that can investigate this beating is. Of course, that’s only because there was video of it. If there hadn’t been, it would be ten sheriff’s deputies’ word against a known horse thief. We’ve seen this play out before — in fact, we see it every day.
This incident is an interesting companion to Michael Slager’s killing of Walter Scott. What most struck me in that video was how calm Slager was. There was no emotion. Even putting down a rabid dog would elicit more emotion in most people. I’m sure that it never occurred to Slager that anyone would question what he was doing. And I doubt that Slager saw what he was doing as outside his job description. Scott ran from Slager. How dare he?! What disrespect! And if Scott had gotten away, he might have gone on to miss another child support payment! Slager was just doing his job.
But in an important sense, that’s true. Slager was just doing his job. He was doing what we Americans seem to think is right and fitting. Sure, we don’t like to be reminded of it so graphically. But this is what we want. I am still haunted by a segment I saw on The Last Word. (If anyone has the link to it, please let me know.) It was after one of the many highly publicized police shootings. But this was video of a couple of police officers trying to deal with a clearly mentally disturbed man who had a knife. Eventually, the officers killed the man. And Lawrence O’Donnell presented it as the police doing a good job.
You see, the officers did try to reason with the man. And they spent a fair amount of time before killing the man. But the whole thing shocked me. That was good police work? That is what we owe to the mentally disabled? I don’t think so. There are actually a lot of ways that a crazy man with a knife could be dealt with. Of course, that isn’t the job the police. They are trained to deal with normal criminals. It’s not surprising that they saw that their only choice was to kill this man.
The question is why it is that the police were called to deal with this situation. Everyone else in the area was gone. The only potential victims were the police officers. Why police officers? Why not, I don’t know, mental health professionals? I am not a mental health professional myself, but I imagine two guys dressed in white with a big net like something out of cartoon. That would have been a more effective response to that situation. I’m sure there are much better still.
Ta-Nehisi Coates dealt with this issue in an article yesterday, The Myth of Police Reform. He noted that we spend too much time talking about what exactly a police officer did and was thinking rather than asking the more profound question, “Why was the officer even there?” Walter Scott is dead because we have the criminal justice system deal with child support issues instead of the more reasonable choice of social workers.
So we have three layers. We have the officers themselves — the focus of our concern, but actually the least important aspect of our problems. We have the police agencies themselves, which really are a major problem all by themselves. But the overriding problem is our wish to make all problems about criminal justice. I doubt we will do anything about it, however. We Americans are a very fearful and simplistic people.