By Allison Stalberg
Everyone has seen it in the news or on television: a cop pushing someone to the ground, throwing tear gas into crowds of protesters. There are many instances of police encounters that make us think, “Was that the right thing for the officer to do?”
“There were about four police officers trying to arrest one guy. We were having a lot of difficulty,” said Ron Stowe, Director of Public Safety. “We were trying to arrest without him getting hurt or without us getting hurt ourselves.
“I specifically remember while that was going on thinking to myself ‘If somebody is watching this or if someone is videoing this, it’s going to look bad.’”
“The right thing” is hard to define when there are so many perspectives. Just take a look at these two examples of supposed police brutality.
In Santa Rosa, California on Oct. 22, 2013, 13-year-old Andy Lopez got shot by a police officer. Lopez carried an airsoft gun that was designed to appear as an AK-47, causing Sonoma County’s sheriff deputy, Erick Gelhaus, to shoot, mistaking the toy for a real firearm. The toy did not have the orange tip (required for all toy guns).
The situation sparked many protests, especially for the Latino community which Lopez was a part of, bringing to question how much race, gender and social class affect an officer’s call on how much force to use?
“There is an abundance of reliable data that shows unambiguously that people of color, the mentally ill, poor people, the homeless, the immigrant and the LGBT community bear the brunt of police abuse of power,” said Brigitt Keller, Executive Director of the National Police Accountability Project in the National Lawyers Guild, to The Guilfordian in an email.
Another such example of brutality is the Scott Olsen incident that occurred on October 22, 2011 in Oakland, California. Scott Olsen, an Iraq veteran, went to an occupy protest after losing his job in the summer.
Law enforcement decided to throw tear gas. They shot protesters with non-lethal weapons after protestors picked up the canisters and threw them back at police.
“We’ll never know exactly what happened, but what I think happened is … one of the officers shot him in the head at point blank range,” said Jim Chanin, a civil rights attorney who represented Olsen in a phone call with The Guilfordian.
“The police did not give medical assistance, which is one of the many violations of policy they did that day,” said Chanin. “To make a long story short, he has permanent brain damage. So he sued and we settled the case.”
The Lopez and Olsen cases are only two of many examples that occur on a daily bases. But why are situations like these so common?
Many students who’ve taken a psychology class know of the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which some Stanford students were given power over others as officers, dramatically changing their behavior.
“Roles are very powerful and can determine behavior more than individual traits,” said Sarah Estow, Assistant Professor of Psychology. “People may do things in roles that they wouldn’t normally do. It’s also a very stressful and unpredictable job which can make aggression more likely.”
Lawyers like Martin R. Stolar agree that the fault is not just in an individual, but the position they are put in.
“Part of it has to do with the culture that provides a government badge to an individual, and they have a certain amount of authority over the rest of society,” said Stolar in a phone call with The Guilfordian. “And people are often unable to control the impulses that come with that kind of authority.
“The other side of it is accountability. Because you can get away with something and it’s known that you’re not going to be held accountable for it. It’s a culture that says it’s okay to use your power to stop people and throw them against the wall. No one is going to be held accountable for that, but its brutality none the less.”
In terms of solutions, some like Chanin believe a great different can be made in terms of police supervisors disciplining their department.
“A perfect example would be Richmond; they had a department that was completely out of control in the late 70s,” Chanin said. “It wasn’t doing the supervisory job it should’ve been doing.
“A new guy came around, and he called me in his office, and he said ‘I’m going to clean up this place.’ I was thinking ‘to go to the moon, you need a rocket ship.’ I thought it would never happen but I was wrong. He made it happen.”
So in the end, how does an officer decide what is right and wrong? The answer is never simple.
Stowe concluded, “The point is that the officer has to make that split second decision based on the information he or she has, and we are all real quick to criticize that when these educated, scholarly justices may take months to come to an agreement of whether they did the right thing or not.”