‘Obey Me if You Want to Live’

My last post looked at how advocates of police violence often deploy some version of Thomas Hobbes’ argument for an omnipotent sovereign. That argument goes, ‘Police can use any amount of violence they deem necessary because their ability to preserve order is of paramount importance.’

Notice that the form of this argument is, ‘Police violence is justified by X.’ That is, Hobbes’ argument implicitly accepts that police violence needs some kind of external justification: it is not obviously acceptable.

I want to contrast that form of argument against another one which, on the surface, appears similar: the appeal to force, AKA “Shut up or I’ll hurt you.” The president of the Cleveland police union, Jeffery Follmer, articulates it pretty clearly in an interview which followed his demand for an apology from a football player who publicly wore a T-shirt reading “Justice for Tamir Rice [and] John Crawford.” (Rice was a 12 year old boy shot to death by police while holding a realistic-looking toy pistol; John Crawford was a young man shot to death by police in an Ohio Walmart while he held an air rifle he’d picked up from a shelf. Both were black.) In response to a reporter asking, “What do you think about these concerns that some people have that folks are being killed in some cases by officers when there’s less than a lethal threat being posed?” Follmer said:

How about this: listen to police officers’ commands, listen to what we tell you, and just stop. I think that eliminates a lot of problems. I have kids too. They know how to respect the law, they know what to do when a police officer comes up to them. I think the nation needs to realize that when we tell you to do something, do it, and if you’re wrong, you’re wrong, and if you’re right, the courts will figure it out.

LAPD veteran Sunil Dutta makes similar statements—well, commands, actually—in his Washington Post op-ed “I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me.

Even though it might sound harsh and impolitic, here is the bottom line: if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long?

If this were just friendly advice about how to survive in a cruel world, that would be one thing. But Dutta and Follmer are not just giving advice about how to survive a dangerous situation; they are explicitly defending that situation. It’s true that obeying cops increases your likelihood of surviving an encounter with them, just as it’s true that obeying armed robbers increases your likelihood of surviving the robbery—but the fact that these are the case does not tell us anything about whether either of them should be the case.

Let me show you what I mean. Dutta’s op-ed can be reduced to the following blueprint:

  • Being a cop is hard
  • Obey me if you want to live
  • Being a cop is hard
  • Be nice to cops

At no point does Dutta offer any evidence for the thesis he gives at the beginning of the article, that “cops are not murderers.” What he does say is generally true: cops deal with some ridiculous shit, obeying a police officer will increase your chance of surviving an encounter with them, and it’s good (at least, I think it’s good) to be nice to everybody. But, like Follmer, Dutta does not offer any evidence or argument for why so many black deaths at the hands of police officers are justified. It’s almost as if the idea of an unjustified officer killing is inconceivable to them—as if police behavior were justified by definition.

Consequently, they give no reasons for their positions. Assertions, yes. Platitudes, yes. And threats, yes: Dutta threaten his readers with five different kinds of violence if they don’t reply to “Jump” with “How high?”

The formal term for this is argumentum ad baculum—“argument to the cudgel,” or more generally, “appeal to force.” It’s a logical fallacy, and amounts to “I’m right because shut up or I’ll hurt you.” Obviously, it’s not an argument at all: it’s a threat designed to pre-empt argument. It’s the language of force (spoken by all animals), not of reason (spoken by people).

That such contemptuous threats are espoused, not by just some cop, but by esteemed police spokespeople should trouble us: if “shut up or I’ll hurt you” is the thoughtful, public response to criticisms of unaccountable violence, how do these guys react to an irate driver at a road-side stop?

It feels bizarre to even have to say this, but police should not be able to threaten violence against any disobedience or dissent. Defend themselves, sure. Use force proportionate to the stakes and risks of the situation? Totally. Kill anyone who doesn’t immediately and totally comply?* Um, no. If you can’t stay cool when someone calls you a “racist pig,” you’re really not cut out for this work.

Perhaps the best evidence for the fact that we have a problem with unaccountable police violence in America is the way in  which many (but not all) cops react to criticism: by taking offense and issuing threats. If police are public servants**, then they will take public concerns seriously and public criticism humbly. If they’re not, then why do we have them?

*[It’s worth nothing that at least in Crawford’s case, he had no chance to comply. In the video of his death you can see that he was unaware of the officers around him until they shot him.]

**[I’m disregarding the radical claim that police are essentially the army of the ruling class; I assume here that police are essentially public servants.]


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