Standing With Officer James Sanders
December 9, 2016 (Fault Lines) – When a car full of teens blew past Officer James Sanders with the Social Circle, GA police department, and one stuck his head out the window and yelled “fuck the police!,” Sanders was not amused.
He was, in fact, so unamused that he made a pretextual traffic stop and, after the teens pulled over next to a gas station, ordered them out of the car and gave the kid who yelled at him a ten-minute tongue lashing. Video of the November 23 encounter has since been released to the public, and to watch it is by turns amusing and cringeworthy. It seems to go on forever: at one point, the kid’s friends actually leave without him, abandoning him to the tender mercies of Sanders and his partner. (As if to underscore the pretextual nature of the stop, no ticket or anything was written for the driver.)
When Sanders was done, he told the kid to “get out of here,” went back to his patrol car with his partner and drove off. Full stop. No harm done, unless you count acute second-hand embarrassment for everyone involved (and anyone watching the video.)
End of story? Not quite. Because on December 6, Social Circle’s police chief, Tyrone Oliver, told Fox 5 Atlanta he was letting Sanders go for his behavior during and after the stop. Along with claiming Sanders’ conduct was unworthy of an SCPD cop (he invoked the “we hold officers to a higher standard” trope, which isn’t always a useful model of police/community relations), he said Sanders gave a statement about the incident that didn’t match body and dash cam recordings.
Maybe most tellingly, Oliver said officers on his force have to be tougher than this, capable of enduring mean words without suffering an emotional breakdown:
“We have to have tough skin and let things roll of our back,” Oliver said.
So what’s the problem? Well, it seems Sanders was a well-known and well-liked cop in his community. As of December 8, an impressive 350 people (that’s 8% of Social Circle’s population) have signed a Change.org petition calling on City Manager Adele Schirmer to reinstate him. The petition says this in urging people to #StandWithSanders:
A young man passing by Sanders traffic stop yelled out profane words F— the police. Upon questioning the individual, Sanders asked the young man to own up to his actions and speak with integrity. He was insulted through this young man’s actions, and it is unfair that he is the individual who suffers the most.
Before you ask why anyone has to “suffer” anything as a result of a) addressing an opinion to a public servant or b) feeling “insulted” by it, remember that it’s 2016. “Victimhood culture” is now a sociologically documented phenomenon, feelings rule facts and the proper response to feeling offended by something is to shriek at the top of your voice about it until someone comes by to fix the problem and tell you how awesome you are.
Just as it would be unfair to judge the Founders by our standards for owning slaves, so too would it be wrong to call out Sanders for acting like a petulant man-child. And for the sake of Chief Oliver’s mental health, I hope he has no plans to hire Emory alumni.
Rather, the interesting question, in light of the video, is whether Sanders’ conduct was really all that unbecoming and worthy of a firing. It’s clear that a decent chunk of the community doesn’t think so. And if you look at some of the reasons Oliver gave for firing Sanders, it’s unclear they hold up as well as the media, which for the most part dutifully repeated what he said, would have you believe.
Take the traffic stop itself. Oliver implied it was pretextual and possibly bogus:
“He did state that he pulled them over for failure to maintain lane. When you look at the video, the vehicle did hit the white line but it was after he was coming up on them with a high rate of speed,” Oliver insisted.
But of course, it’s not bogus. There’s no “startled by a cop” exemption for hitting the white line, and as Fault Lines contributor and former cop Greg Prickett will tell you, if a police officer wants to legally pull someone over, following them to make them nervous until they break one of America’s numerous, byzantine traffic laws is the oldest trick in the book.
That does make the stop pretextual, but ever since the Supremes decided Whren v. US (1996), pretextual stops haven’t been a problem. They’re a bread-and-butter tool of law enforcement, especially useful when the cops see someone (perhaps someone young, and black, and whose hat’s real low) and think they look drugg-y, but unfortunately can’t stop them for that reason. The fact that the pretext in Sanders’ case was to poorly disguise how he was mad at a teenager may be embarrassing for Sanders, but it doesn’t make the stop any less lawful.
Nor is it of concern that Sanders threatened the teens with hauling them out of the car and searching it and everyone for marijuana. Ultimately, he made it clear he had no intention of doing so: towards the end of the video, before he lets the kids who didn’t yell at him drive off, he says he was kidding and points out that such a search would be unlawful. Barring probable cause to suspect drugs on the kids or the car, that’s true. But if Sanders had really wanted, it wouldn’t have been hard to search anything he liked while staying in compliance with the Fourth Amendment.
For instance, he could’ve invoked the usual “training and experience” boilerplate to claim he reasonably suspected the kids were armed and dangerous, or that there was a weapon in the car. Under Terry v. Ohio (1968), he could’ve frisked the kids for guns, and under Michigan v. Long (1983), he could’ve looked through the car. Any drugs he found in the process would, needless to say, be admissible evidence.
Or he could’ve claimed he smelled marijuana, and his “training and experience” led him to conclude the kids had some. That’d give him reasonable suspicion, enough to satisfy an extension of the stop to bring in a drug dog under Rodriguez v. US (2015). Thanks to the courts’ belief in the magic crime-fighting powers of K9 units, getting one to alert on the kids or car is all it takes to supply probable cause. Sanders could’ve even arrested the driver for the traffic infraction, impounded his car and searched it at the station. He had a lot of options.
Leaving aside the claim about Sanders’ misleading statement, which is tough to evaluate from a distance – the Walton Tribune reports that Oliver said there were “several discrepancies” between it and the video – it seems the most upsetting thing to city administrators about Sanders’ conduct, judging from Oliver’s comments, was how he responded to a juvenile provocation. Claiming that he wimped out when a teen taunted him is one way to look at it, and it’s possible to watch the video and come to that conclusion.
At the same time, while it’s hard to deny Sanders went on for too long, there’s a good argument that what he did amounted to a dressing-down or a stern talking-to, the sort of thing adult authority figures are basically supposed to do with teens. The Change.org petitioners are right to note that “Sanders asked the young man to own up to his actions and speak with integrity,” and those media outlets (like CBS) that described his conduct as “yelling profanities” ignore that he was just repeating the kid’s words back to him.
In a different, less emotional time, an “intervention” like Sanders would’ve been considered good community policing. Even if his motives were selfish, the pedagogical value of calling a kid out for yelling a dumb, rude thing remains. Sanders didn’t actually drop the hammer on anyone. And it’s interesting to note that Sanders and his partner were at least acquainted with the kid and his family; Sanders noted that he’d seen him testify at a drug trial, and his partner knew his stepdad.
In an age where cops who order their dogs to chew off helpless men’s faces remain on the force, at least until they shoot and kill elderly librarians, it’s odd to see cops like Sanders get the boot for what amounts to a case of the feelz over a teenager’s taunt. Maybe a stern talking-to of his own would’ve been appropriate. But it’s hard to argue anyone was harmed because he made a lawful stop and asked a rude kid to own up to his language. Sanders has already appealed his termination; City Manager Schirmer should at least consider listening to the petitioners and giving him his job back.