Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Is There Such a Thing as Provocation?

Provocation used to be recognized in American courts. The degree to which it still is, I don't know. But presumably, once upon a time, if you got arrested for punching a guy in the nose and told the judge, "Yes, Your Honor, I punched him in the nose, but only because he wouldn't quit calling my wife a whore," there was a good chance you'd get off with a lighter sentence or none at all, because the court would recognize that you had been sufficiently provoked. It's not to say that punching people in the nose isn't wrong; just that it's too much to expect you to be a saint when someone else is working really hard at getting themselves punched. It was a recognition of two facts: 1) that humans have their limits, and 2) that sometimes victims contribute to the mental state of their attacker. Sometimes they literally ask for it. By treating provocation as a mitigating circumstance, courts were recognizing the concept of shared culpability.

We hold police officers to a higher standard of self-restraint when it comes to provocation. This is why most police academies still use a boot camp format for creating a stressful environment for cadets. The schools not only want officers to be able to work under pressure, they want them to demonstrate that they have a thick skin. It's expected that nobody wants to go to jail, and so it's not unusual for people who are being taken to jail to hurl insults and abuses at the people who are taking them. This much is expected, and a police department needs people who can handle it.

How does someone handle something like that, though, day after day? One way is that the officers set themselves above it. They take an attitude of condescension toward the person who is behaving badly. They fix it in their minds that the person hurling insults somehow can't help himself, because he's morally or mentally inferior in some respect. It's treated almost like a handicap. Just as you wouldn't lose your temper with an incontinent person for wetting himself, you don't lose your temper with criminals for acting like criminals. It's all they're capable of.

If you get into this mindset, it can make the job workable. Of course, after a few years of spending all day responding to calls of criminal behavior, it can be challenging not to see the whole of society as belonging in that mental category of human rubbish, because you're getting a skewed perspective. You have to fight back the urge to suspect the worst of everyone.

But what do you do when they don't let you? That is, what if you're trying to brighten the line in your mind that separates criminals from everybody else, so that you can still retain somewhat of a positive view of humanity in general, but the rest of humanity doesn't cooperate? What if, every time you try to be polite, friendly, and helpful to people you weren't called to arrest, they rebuff you and repay your kindness with venom? How much of that could you take? How long would you endure that before reaching the conclusion that the general public does deserve to be lumped in with the criminal element?

That's not something they teach in police academies, and it doesn't get enough attention in most police departments. Religion could play a useful role here, but being as there's a wall of separation (or supposed to be) and the fact that departments may be composed of officers from a diversity of faiths, the role religion can actually play is necessarily restricted. Psychological counseling isn't really an option, either, as simply reaching out to a mental health care provider stigmatizes an officer as being unfit for duty.

So we call these guys to come clean up society's messes, and then we dump more garbage on them for doing it, and the only support system we allow them is each other, or--off-duty--their families and churches. If divorce rates and domestic abuse rates among cops are any indicator, this is too much to expect of families. And then we're put off by the fact that the police have an "us vs. them" attitude toward the public when we, the public, created it.

Suppose you were a fire fighter, and every time you showed up to respond to a medical emergency, everybody there whipped out their cell phones hoping to get video evidence of you stealing something, despite the fact that you had never stolen anything, ever. How long would it take for that to get old? Imagine people clutched their purses and patted their wallets every time they saw a firefighter. Imagine pundits going on for years at a time and even building whole careers around pounding the message that firefighters don't respect people's property. "When the only tool you've got is an axe, every problem looks like firewood." Suppose that every time a fire broke out, there was a near certainty that the fire department was going to be sued for breaking doors and causing water damage to walls and furniture. Every other day, the news would have a story about the "reckless disregard" firefighters had for people's stuff, and they'd run stories with carefully constructed half-truths about how firefighters in other countries put out fires using waterless methods. If more fires happened in a minority neighborhood, necessitating more responses from the fire department, journalists would hold up those statistics as proof that firefighting is an inherently racist occupation.

If you felt you were continually under assault by everyone outside your fire department, just for doing your job, how long would it be before you eventually told all those jerks to put out their own fires and drive themselves to the hospital?

It's in this light that I'd like you to watch this video. In South Gate, a city in Los Angeles County, California, some plainclothes police officers in tactical gear were doing something--arresting someone, serving a warrant, we don't really know. And for some reason, there were at least two women in the neighborhood--one across the street and another maybe ten feet from them--who felt that the mere presence of these officers represented an impropriety worthy of documenting. The officers weren't apparently doing anything to either of these women, just talking among themselves. But one of the women nonetheless got very close to them, playing sidewalk news anchor with her cell phone. It's not clear from this video whether they asked her to stop or asked her to leave, but it's also not clear what business she had being there doing what she was doing.

At that point, we see one of the officers chase the woman, grab her phone, and destroy it. Make no mistake. What he did was wrong--as wrong as punching someone in the nose for repeatedly calling your wife a whore--and he should face appropriate disciplinary action accordingly. If the implication is that the recording is for the purpose of documenting criminal evidence, then the implied accusation in recording the officers' conversation is that the officers are all criminals and that their mere presence is a criminal act. How long should the people who are there to stop crime reasonably be expected to put up with that foolishness? It doesn't justify one of them assaulting a woman and destroying her property, but there's also only so much sympathy one can have for somebody who goes out of their way to kick a rattlesnake.

At some point, when adults get serious about solving a behavioral problem--whether of an animal, a child, subordinates, a class of people, whatever--they realize that you can't just punish everyone into compliance. They figure out that the people who are acting in an undesirable way are doing so as a response to certain conditions, and if you want to change the behavior, you have to change the conditions. Do you think police in this country are out of control, brutal, and corrupt? If so, are you out of control, brutal, and corrupt? If not, what's the difference? Don't just say, "they're rotten people." That's too easy. It solves nothing. They're human beings displaying human responses to a given set of conditions the best way they know how. So what conditions are they being subjected to that caused them to be more brutal, out-of-control, and corrupt than you, and what can we do to either eliminate those conditions, or to better equip the officers to deal with those conditions in a way we find acceptable? That's a national discussion that needs to happen. In the mean time, we're not helping anything by needling these guys for existing, and then crying about it when they lash out in response. It's time we did more than just demand better. It's time we created better, and that starts with recognizing our own role in creating this situation.

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