One wonders how often this sort of thing happens and is not published on the WP. Increasingly, in the US, non-criminals are arrested for non-crimes, for some reason.
The officer wanted to know what I was asking. Not wanting to be labeled a scalper, I said, “Love to get face value.” These words started a Kafka-esque journey into the D.C. criminal justice system.
On NPR the other day (sorry, unable to find link or transcript), a similar story. Peaceful protesters, some of whom were clergymen, lawyers, and even law makers, get arrested. For peaceful protesting.
There are many other examples, and even web sites devoted to tracking this sort of thing.
My point here isn’t that police forces are all bad or that most police officers themselves are a force for ill. My guess is that a relatively small percentage of officers are truly bad. Unfortunately, it’s not a certainty that they will ultimately be removed from power; that’s not how the fraternal order of police works. Like in any organization, the smart (but ruthless) ones will keep their jobs. More worryingly, they are more likely to influence others and cause a culture change, meaning officers not predisposed toward needlessly aggressive and dominant behavior will nonetheless display such behavior, as it becomes the perceived norm.
In a room full of people, let’s say a dozen or so, how many people does it take to change the whole atmosphere in the room? Just one. One person can affect the attitudes and behavior of everyone else. In the workplace, this person is the office bully. Some offices have a “no asshole policy” and enforce it, but this is the exception. Combine the person who is a bully with one who is cunning, and you get someone who is dominant to others and who has job security. He (or she) won’t get fired because of personal connections to the bosses. This person can also impact others around him, resulting in a culture change for everyone else.
On the police force, this is a bigger problem because of the collateral damage it has on everyone else. While a police officer on the street might not have much power as we think of it, we all have some power in some situations. To make a comparison, in situations where I interviewed a candidate for a position, I briefly had power over someone else. Oftentimes, candidates are nervous, and not because they’re not qualified or because I’m intimidating. (I purposely try to put people at ease during interviews.) The reason is that I am in power and they are not. As a modest and empathetic person, it’s less likely that I will abuse this power. But not everyone shares this ethic or has this personality characteristic.
As a rule of thumb, people in power will always abuse it unless there is a possibility of personally felt consequence.
There are ways to avoid being arrested: Not attending protests or doing anything that might ever attract police. Being very meek and non-threatening. Being powerful. Being a race other than black.
Let me clarify that a bit. On the first point, if you’re never around any situation that might ever attract the attention of police (stay at home most of the time except for work or school), then your risk is low. This isn’t very practical for a lot of people though.
On the second point, being meek and non-threatening might sound defeatist, but I strongly encourage it whenever speaking to police. Some people are, I suspect, arrested purely because the ego of the officer is questioned by the suspect. Ego and power is very important to police officers, and questioning those things is a one way ticket to being handcuffed. If you come across as meek and fearful, then the police might have mercy on you (but not too fearful, lest the officer suspect you’re hiding something or lying). If this isn’t your thing, then by all means, be respectful–unless your goal is to go to jail.
Being very powerful is a good way to avoid arrest as well, or at least to mitigate the consequences of arrest. Donald Trump probably won’t be arrested, even if he attends a protest rally. The reason is that the officers know that they’ll have a lot of questions if they arrest someone like that. Even if they don’t recognize him, they’ll see he has professional bodyguards and that he must be a VIP. No officer wants the heat on himself for arresting a VIP. Louis (Scooter) Libby was arrested, but as someone in a former position of power, his sentence was vacated by former president Bush. Yes, I know that Bernard Madoff was arrested (for de-frauding a lot of people) as well as Dominique Strauss-Kahn (for alledged rape, though the “victim” turned out to be without any credibility and almost certainly lying); they’re both rich, powerful, and famous, and yet they didn’t escape arrest. But again, having power in some form (position, wealth, fame, etc) doesn’t guarantee any outcome except being treated better than others. OJ Simpson had money and fame, and so got away with the murder that most others would be in prison for. Madoff made a lot of powerful people angry, and so his life will end in prison. Strauss-Kahn was eventually let go; would that have happened had his fame and power not prompted questions of his accuser and her inconsistent re-telling of events?
Injustice in the US happens to members of all races and is committed by members of all races, but black Americans certainly have it worse. Being black increases prison sentences even after controlling for other inputs, such as the severity of the crime. There are many theories on this topic, and I doubt there is a single explanation. But consider this. We tend to empathize more with people who are “like us.” This could refer to one’s race, how one speaks, how emotionally expressive one is, and so forth. This is a natural bias, though one that we should attempt to overcome. This is especially true in the context of law enforcement, whether one is an officer on the beat or a judge in the courtroom. I contend that blacks are stereotyped as criminals and are empathized with much less than others, on average, and that is a factor in their higher levels of incarceration. Not the only factor, but a factor nonetheless.
Out of the four proposals to avoid arrest (or to mitigate post-arrest consequences), only half of them are easily within our control: avoidance of police and submissive attitude toward police. Our race and wealth are trickier characteristics to manipulate. But anyone can be caught in the vicious US criminal justice system, no matter what you do, and no matter your race or perceived place in society. So it’s up to the People to speak out against police abuse and the system that condones it, in whatever way we safely can.