Presumption of Guilt & the Question of Noncompliance

The footage included in this recent Washington Post article lays bare the presumption of guilt too many officers have black citizens. On June 15, 2015 Breaion King was violently arrested by police in Austin, Texas; an encounter during which she was body-slammed to the pavement. Afterward, while in a squad car, a second officer stated that cops are suspicious of blacks due to their “violent tendencies” and “intimidating” appearance.

Nonetheless, some have criticized King for not immediately complying with the officer. This is a criticism I see often regarding many cases of police brutality. Given the ongoing tensions between law enforcement and civilians, I agree that it’s unwise to risk making an officer more nervous or belligerent than he probably already is. However, the actions and statements of the officers were downright reprehensible and I believe they should be removed from the force.

I don’t claim to know exactly why King hesitated in following the officer’s commands. Maybe she was confused, nervous, or afraid. I can’t speculate exactly what was happening in her mind, but I understand that as humans, regardless of color, we sometimes lose our rationality when faced with an intimidating situation. Noncompliance isn’t always a result of disrespect or an attitude problem. I know this firsthand based on an experience my husband Max (my then-boyfriend/legal alien) and I had with police way back when he and I were dating:

Nearly twenty years ago, four white officers (three men, one woman) stated they were searching for a shooting suspect in my old neighborhood in East New York in Brooklyn. No suspect description was given, only that there had been shots in the area. Max and I had already been parked upon our return from an evening out when the officers approached. Though I know we had done nothing wrong, my fight or flight response definitely kicked in. I remained as composed as possible as we were separated, frisked, and questioned individually on opposite sides of Max’s car. They didn’t seem to believe Max and I were boyfriend and girlfriend as they repeatedly asked how we knew one another, and why we were in the neighborhood, as though expecting the answers to change. Neither of us had a criminal record, something that was verified when the officers ran our credentials. The search (of us and the vehicle) turned up nothing and yet we were still treated as if we were guilty.

For the most part, I had pretty much been set aside once my ID verified I’d been truthful about my address (where I lived with my parents), but they continued to hassle Max and seemed to delight in doing so. I’d been ordered to sit on the almost nonexistent rear bumper and sternly instructed not to look at him. The female officer had to tell me this twice because my concern got the best of me, leading me to unintentionally defy the initial request. She seemed irritated that she had to repeat herself.

I didn’t understand what harm could come of me watching their interaction with my boyfriend. That’s when it hit me. I wasn’t in control of the situation. Even my eyes were under someone else’s command. And though I found my awkwardly seated position uncomfortable I just had to bear it so as not to alarm the officers. This made me even more anxious as wild scenarios played in my mind.

This all happened late in the evening with virtually no witnesses, except for a man who’d later introduce himself as a lawyer who happened to be passing through the area when he saw our situation and decided to watch the events play out from across the intersection. Meanwhile, I heard the other officers berating and repeatedly insulting Max, who’s white, for being in the “wrong neighborhood.” It hurt me to hear him being treated that way, though he took it in stride even after they seized his small utility knife and tossed it deep into some bushes. I was angered by their bullying behavior, but felt powerless to object.

After what must’ve been ten minutes, though it felt like much longer, we were free to go. As the police pulled off, the lawyer approached and asked if we were okay. Upon hearing the details of what transpired, he stated that the officers had behaved unprofessionally and offered his legal services. We ultimately declined to pursue a case. Nonetheless, to this day, Max and I both agree that the officers were likely trying to incite a more volatile conclusion to the encounter. Max, who is now a proud US citizen, was more irritated by the situation than anything and felt the male officers behaved like jerks, but stated that the police back in Russia, his homeland, were much more extreme.

Despite the fact that this happened so long ago, I still feel dread and sadness when I think about it. Even so, I’m aware we’re among the lucky ones who suffered no more than brief inconvenience and mild humiliation. There are too many today who don’t survive their encounters, or do so with severe physical and emotional trauma.

It’s easy to watch a situation from a distance and judge how a person should’ve reacted. However, the human thought process varies from one person to the next and is shaped by the prior experiences of each individual. And sometimes those experiences can overrule logic. Perhaps incidents of excessive force, as in the case of Breaion King, could be avoided if officers are better vetted psychologically and given proper training to allow them to better differentiate genuine threats and intentionally defiant people from merely nervous individuals. It would also help if there were clearer guidelines as to how each situation should be addressed with a minimal risk to both citizen and officer. There needs to be a mutual respect between law enforcement and community and that can only take place with reform, balance, and a higher degree of trust than currently exists.

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