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Four Arizona police officers put on leave after video shows man’s beating

By now you have likely heard about this case involving the Mesa, Arizona Police Department. I have heard many people defending the police because the suspect didn’t comply with their commands and was clearly being “a jerk”. It is wise when a police officer tells you to sit down to actually sit down. It is wise when the police are engaging with you to at least act like you actually care. The suspects body language and attitude send a signal to the police about the kind of individual they are dealing with. The man who complied was left alone by police. If you comply with the police and they behave in a way you feel is unprofessional you always have the option of complaining after the fact. You can complain about their unprofessional behavior with a bloody nose, or without, the choice is one of what is wise.

That all being true, the police were still wrong.

When I discuss such cases I take many things into account and often find that the police have acted within the bounds of their function. This is not such a case.

The police originally released a clip of tape without audio. The Mesa Police Association complained that without audio it painted a false picture so the department released footage with the audio. If their intention was to protect the officers, they failed; the audio painted a much worse picture of the officers (at least one of them). Based on the audio released the police made this personal.

I understand that, when you are faced with someone who has that disgusting of an attitude as the suspect did it’s difficult to maintain your composure. At that point it becomes a battle of wills. Again, wisdom should tell you that four police officers will win that battle of wills and you’re better off not having that battle. But this suspect wasn’t wise. But neither were the cops. They were unwise, and unprofessional.

In the released audio we clearly hear the police curse at the suspect and most tellingly say, “you see what you get?” THAT is NOT law enforcement. THAT is PERSONAL. It was at that moment, more than any other, that the officer demonstrated he was in the wrong. That moment taints all his actions as an assault rather than an arrest.

Police are legally allowed (and rationally so) to use “that force which is reasonable and necessary to affect the arrest”. Note the AND in that clause. It must be both reasonable and necessary. Even if a person excuses the anger shown by officers (at least one of them anyway) as being reasonable anger the force that resulted (I believe) from that anger, was not necessary to affect the arrest. If it had been the first officer on scene, by himself, on the third floor, with two suspects, then I can understand the need to quickly take care of the situation and the amount of force that would be reasonable in that situation is different. However, in this case there were multiple officers and the suspect was backed into a corner. He had nowhere to go and his ability to fight back was reduced by being in the triangle of the corner. Literally back against the wall.

The footage shows Robert Johnson, 33, getting kneed and punched several times on his head and body until he falls to the ground.
The footage shows Robert Johnson, 33, getting kneed and punched several times on his head and body until he falls to the ground.

Being a police officer is a difficult job.

It’s the job that few people want to do and fewer are able to do. Perhaps that officer came into the job with that attitude and it was missed in the process but more than likely he gained that attitude after becoming an officer and being faced with person after person like the suspect. Over time he took that all personally and it changed his personality. There might still be a place on the police force for someone like that, but it’s not in patrol. He can’t be trusted to engage with the public and keep it neutral and not personal. He can’t be trusted to represent his department in a professional way. Neither can the other officers.

The first officer in the video, the older, white-haired officer, seems (I’m guessing) to be a veteran officer. If he cannot be trusted to let supervisors know about the behavior he can’t be trusted either. Perhaps, you might argue, he didn’t see anything wrong with the behavior. That too, I argue, makes him unfit to be on the street. Realistically, in his entire career, a situation like this one has likely not come up very often. These are the things we hear about because they are dramatic but the average officer never fires his gun and never has to use closed hand fighting techniques on suspects. A toe-to-toe match is rare when taken as a percentage of the millions of police contacts made every single day in the United States.

Cities like Mesa, AZ are down to a minimal number of officers due to budget cuts. They are hiring but it is hard to find people who meet the requirements. Officers in a circumstance like that will spend the night going from call to call, often without a back up.  Mesa, AZ is a city of about 450,000 people. According to Mesa Police they had 308,090 calls for service in 2015 (the last record I could find – PDF) which was covered by 503 patrol officers.

They are tired and stressed. That’s a reason, not an excuse, for behavior like this.

As citizens we can do something to prevent this.

There is a very simple solution to this kind of thing. It’s something that people who support the police and who want to give them the benefit of the doubt can do and still come away strongly supporting the police. It’s something that people who hate the police can do and come away feeling better about the police. It’s simple – change the laws. While the officer in this video does deserve some scorn, most often the police do not. The lawmaker, in his ivory tower, has dictated what the officer will do. The blame (and the impetus for change) rests with the lawmaker. For some reason no one ever points the finger at them. It’s about time we did. It’s a simple idea. A cop can’t abuse his power if he doesn’t have it. A cop is designated as the enforcer of the law. If the law doesn’t exist he cannot enforce it. This starts by changing laws, there should be fewer of them. The state has no right to tell an adult they have to wear a seat belt. Get rid of that law and the police cannot contact you for it. Turning without using your turn signal when there is no one on the road to care you are turning bothers no one. Change the law to reflect this (as some states already have) and an officer cannot pull you over for it. There are a host of laws we can all think of that either can be removed from the books or altered in such a way as to reduce enforcement.

This not only protects citizens from abuse of police power it also means the police are doing less. Departments will need fewer officers, officers will not be overworked, and taxpayers won’t have to foot as large a bill for public safety. All of this can be solved if the lawmaker would actually do his or her job and make laws that actually serve the citizens. That won’t happen unless we citizens put pressure on lawmakers to enact those changes. This is all done at a local level where your voice is still potent and you have a chance of just running into your lawmaker at the grocery store. But this also won’t happen until people understand that the state doesn’t need to run their lives. Take that seat belt law for example – so many people support that. It’s hard to explain to people why that shouldn’t be a law. People should wear a seat belt, it’s safer.  However, why is it the government’s job to force them to? We have to get people to stop wanting our government to do things “for our own good”.

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