Law is obeyed of respect, power obeyed of fear

The other day, the Odessa American reported on the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute’s event on policing, and as reported, the featured guests said some troubling things.

First, both outgoing Ector County Sheriff Mark Donaldson and Odessa Police Chief Tim Burton suggested folks ought to comply with whatever an officer tells them to do in order to protect themselves.

Now, women in the audience might not feel completely comfortable following that advice if interacting with former police officer Salvador Becerra during a traffic stop or former deputy Alfred John Herrera once in jail.

Or maybe that’s not fair. Only rarely do peace officers sexually assault people they have in their custody.


But it doesn’t seem much better to advise people to regard law enforcement like grizzly bears who might maul you if you move too quickly or make too much eye contact.

Treating motorists like they ought to be the professionals as opposed to the person who’s getting paid to know and enforce the law is strange and backward. Some officers do routinely give instructions that are contrary to the law, like saying they can’t be filmed in public, and I don’t think they even do it cynically; it’s because they really don’t know. Maybe they’re new or sub-mediocre, but every profession has people like that. A citizen filming an interaction during a traffic stop isn’t against the law and might be the only way people end up knowing what happened if the dash cam is inconveniently mispositioned or body camera is mistakenly turned off. Asserting your rights is not probable cause or even suspicious: it’s your right.

But the biggest issue is the expectation of perfect compliance when we know the average person isn’t perfect and half of all people are worse than that.

An officer should not be more nervous carrying a loaded gun and doing what they do for a living than the citizen in the vehicle who presumably does not get pulled over every day and does not have robust legal protections to preemptively defend their self if frightened up to and including justifiable homicide.

If a person is flustered during a traffic stop, that may be due to the reasonable fear that any action they take too quickly or too slowly or mistakenly because they misheard or asking to repeat a question to make sure it wasn’t misheard can be interpreted by an officer as noncompliance or disrespect deserving to be punished based on how the officer feels that day or about that type of person.

This is true for an adult who’s been pulled over and is completely sober, mentally healthy, emotionally stable, non-hearing impaired, not-experiencing-diabetic-shock. If officers set the standard at perfect compliance from an ideally healthy motorist, the real world result is a dozen officers beating someone for “resisting arrest” when they ought be providing insulin or shooting someone for aggressive movements when they ought to be getting an officer who knows sign language.

And look, this might all even be justified preemptive caution if something Midland County Sheriff Gary Painter had claimed were actually true.

“It’s a more dangerous job now,” Painter said. “And it’s getting more and more complicated.”

I don’t know exactly how you quantify complication, but I can think of some fair ways to look at danger and none of them support that statement.

The U.S. population when Painter took office in 1985 was 237 million; in 2015, it was an estimated 310 million. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 176 officers died in the line of duty in 1985. If those fatalities were to increase in line with the overall population, 229 officers would have died in 2015. Instead, 123 did.

The NLEOMF includes illnesses such as heart attacks in their numbers. By the FBI’s latest numbers in 2014, there were 96 officer deaths, 51 from felonious incidents and 45 from traffic incidents. Some years, the share of traffic fatalities is larger. That makes sense. The violent crime rate in general is about a third of what it was 30 years ago.

Certainly, being a law enforcement officer is more dangerous than the typical occupation. There’s a lot unpleasantness that goes into it, including paperwork and interacting with people you have to write paperwork on—but it’s not exceptionally dangerous.

It sounds insulting to say that being a taxi driver or a landscaper is about as likely to lead to your death as being a peace officer, but it’s true based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics‘ measures of these things.

Being a roofer, truck driver, construction worker, or especially the sort of work that puts you out in the middle of nowhere without effective medical care like fishing or logging is considerably more dangerous. Very few would self-seriously refer to going into the oilfield as a “tour of duty” or wish they were more often congratulated for doing a job they freely chose and well-compensates them or say that criticism of poor behavior by any roughneck is disrespectful of all oil workers.

I was not there for the talk. There are likely nuances I missed, and I’m sure no one speaking on stage had malice or insincerity in their hearts. For the article, I also don’t know the circumstances of the deadlines or space limits or editing involved.

But I am more than little disappointed that the story I read lacked the context, especially local context, of what too many officers actually choose to do when they have power over others, and I was especially disappointed that at least one verifiably untrue statement was passed along verbatim without being checked for its accuracy.

Journalism isn’t just stenography: it’s a pursuit of truth, especially pushing back against power trying to make its own reality accepted contrary to evidence and reason. It is true that an event happened. It’s true that people in authority made some claims before an audience. But that doesn’t make those claims true or trustworthy or worth passing on when they’re easily checked.

I didn’t get the impression that anything like that happened in the event, and what’s worse is that it didn’t happen in the article covering it, either.

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