Fault Lines
19 April 2017

The Collateral Damage That Accompanies The Just-Comply-With-Police Fallacy

January 20, 2017 (Fault Lines) — “If he’d just have complied with police officer’s commands…”

I’m sick of hearing these excuses about incidents of ugly police force. They come from cops. From prosecutors. From law enforcement advocates. From everyday citizens.

The problem is, this speculation is founded in a huge assumption: that all people who defy, ignore, or resist police officers do so purposely and intentionally.

And I’m just not on board with that assumption.

This week, in Oklahoma County, the District Attorney’s office dismissed criminal charges against Pearl Pearson. In early 2014, Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers arrested Pearson, 64 years old (and deaf), after he drove away from the scene of a traffic collision in which he backed into another car.  During the traffic stop-style encounter, troopers got into a scuffle with Pearson. (What actually happened occurs off-camera, and I’m not one to assume!) In the end, Pearson was charged with a misdemeanor resisting arrest.

The prosecutor cited the reason for dismissal to be the exorbitant financial costs of a sign language interpreter during the trial.  Without doubting the fiscal maturity, part of me wonders if the sympathetic nature of the defendant and the context in which the “crime” occurred factored into the decision to not prosecute. There is certainly a chance of a political black eye (pardon the pun!) for the DA’s office prosecution of an older deaf man for not obeying policemen.

Now it’s fair to include that the three troopers were cleared of any wrongdoing in this case. But do not confuse “justified” with “optimal policing.” Nor should we assume that the clearing of the troopers means that Pearl Pearson was a threat after leaving the scene of a traffic crash. Some might argue it means only that the troopers’ behavior was not bad enough to punish.

This also relates to a practice of criminally charging anyone and everyone who has police force used against him/her with a “resisting” type charge, regardless of the circumstances. This has been sold to many law enforcement agencies and command staffers as a CYA – cover your ass – to limit civil liability for using force. This might be especially employed when force is used against those who might have had a pretty darned good reason for non-compliance when looked at after the fact.

Yes, I said a good reason for not complying with lawful police commands.

Now I’m not suggesting that the OHP subscribed to this practice of blanket criminal charges against those who have force used against them. I have no idea what their policies (written or unwritten) are regarding this. But this practice does exist in agencies across the nation.

So what would explain away seemingly non-compliance in a citizen? Would being hearing impaired? Wearing earbuds listening to your favorite podcast or dance music? A BlueTooth phone call while walking down the street? How about having a fire alarm ringing in the background? Or experiencing “auditory exclusion” – the science-proven physiological phenomenon that shuts down a person’s hearing when under extreme stress?

My curiosity wants to ask what clues, aside from Pearson pointing at his ears, arose in the OHP incident that might have tipped off troopers that communicating with him would require some special tactics; chief among them, patience.

But let’s not stop at simply auditory issues for non-compliance. What about language barriers for those who don’t speak English (yeah, yeah, this is America)? People with Autism? Cognitive disabilities? Schizophrenia? Blind?

How do the ways in which police officers are taught to give commands affect these populations? Is the pressure on police to physically control situations such that we may not get compliance from certain segments of the community?

What about unseen physical disabilities? Is it expected that any and everyone can immediately get down on the ground on their belly? What about the guy who just had knee surgery? Or who’s wearing a colostomy bag? How long would it take you?

Now let’s imagine you find yourself in the wrong place, at the wrong time, wearing the wrong clothes. A police officer thinks you are the suspect who just robbed the convenience store at gunpoint. Except you didn’t. You factually know you didn’t; the cop believes you did, and reasonably so.

When that cop confronts you, he has choices on how he deals with you as a potential violent threat and armed criminal. How high or low is the cop’s Emotional Intelligence? Does he pick up on the subtle clues? Facial expressions? Tone of your questions? Body language?

Or is the armed robber (that he thinks you are) so dangerous that the cop has to immediately and physically control you to prevent your escape or assault? Maybe.

Does your aggressive, posturing, defiant tone with the cop heighten his suspicions that you’re dangerous?  Hmmm.

The complexity of police encounters stacks several of these above issues together – into a mix that invites cops and citizens together into a chaotic scene of contempt and misunderstanding and mistrust.

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