Fay Wells, And Her Damn Good Anecdote
But, though some people cherish statistics, there’s nothing quite like a good anecdote. Through the Washington Post, Fay Wells manages to captures nearly everything that’s wrong with modern policing all in one stark, scary story.
First, to get this out of the way. Fay is an accomplished person. A person of value. She’s not a drug dealer or ugly or poor. So it’s going to be difficult to find a way to blame her for what happened.
Fay was locked out of her home. Maybe that’s inexcusable. She went to a game, came back with a locksmith, and got back into her house.
Her neighbor reported a Hispanic man breaking into her home. Maybe it was Fay’s fault for using a Hispanic locksmith.
Fay heard a noise at her door, opened it, and retreated when she saw a large dog coming up her steps. As she approached her window, a police officer pointed a loaded gun at her. Officers told her to exit the apartment, then swept in and searched the place.
It took a long time to clear up the situation, despite Fay’s repeated offers to prove that she lived at the apartment and that there was no reason to detain her. Officers mostly refused to provide her with their names when she asked, instead turning away and ignoring her.
The officers claimed that all of this could have been avoided if she had simply walked out of the house with her hands up, proclaiming that she lived there. Maybe. But plenty of unarmed people have been shot for “approaching aggressively,” even when unarmed.
Maybe she should have gone door to door when she moved into the complex, and made sure all of her neighbors knew exactly who she was. Or reassured her neighbors that she was just fetching a locksmith. But innocent people performing innocent actions are unlikely to think that others are suspicious of them.
In all, at least 17 officers were likely called to respond to the burglary. They were heavily armed, and entered the situation fearful that they would be one of the fifty or so officers a year who are shot and killed while in the line of duty.
Time after time, we keep talking about the split-second decisions that officers must make while in the line of duty. But those are decisions, at least, for which the officers are duly trained.
But what sort of training are ordinary civilians getting, so they know which actions they can take that won’t result in them being shot and killed? How, exactly, can we ever be reassuring enough that we can know with some certainty that we won’t be killed?
Officers claim that complying with commands is the road to safety. But a man in South Carolina was shot for fetching his license, as requested, because he complied too quickly. Maybe the trick, then, is to comply, but slowly and carefully. But many states require that citizens comply with police commands “promptly,” or risk a charge of obstruction.
And bear in mind that all the normal signs that a person might exhibit when experiencing a fear of death are also things that can lead to reasonable articulable suspicion. Stuff like shaking, sweating, nervousness, and fear are often described as signs that a person may be dangerous.
We are living in a country where ordinary actions can lead to extraordinary, life-threateningly harsh repercussions. Even the worst among us are typically given some kind of due process before execution, but for ordinary citizens in the face of aggressive law enforcement, the death penalty may be only a furtive movement away.
There are some who might ask, what’s the big deal here? There was a small misunderstanding, but nobody got hurt.
The big deal is that in our efforts to make ourselves ever safer from the depredations of drugs and robberies and drunk drivers and cash structurers and strip clubs, we’ve managed to strip away one of the most important pieces of our own security.
Being a citizen should mean something. It should mean that your government is reluctant to hurt you. Inclined, even, to help you where it is possible. But instead, when a citizen is hurt, every one of his decisions is held with tweezers under a microscope, and virtually every officer action is viewed in the light of an ever-present mortal danger.
Frankly, if we really cared about officer safety, we’d prevent them from speeding. We’d advise against high speed chases. We’d give them excellent health insurance to prevent all the job-related illnesses that take officer’s lives every year.
But officers don’t want to be safe. They want to be powerful. They want to have discretion. Fear is just the excuse to get those things. Until we’re ready to start second-guessing that excuse, none of us are safe.