Cop: If you don’t want to get shot, do what I tell you.

2014-08-21 Sunil_Dutta_Los_Angeles_Police_Department

A lot of people are pretty angry about an OpEd Sunil Dutta wrote for the Washington Post. A sampling of reactions:

– Veteran Cop: ‘If You Don’t Want To Get Shot,’ Shut Up — Even If We’re Violating Your Rights (Huffington Post)
– To the Cop Who Told Me Not to Resist: Go F— Yourself (some random politics site)
– ‘If you don’t want to get shot, just do what I tell you,’ cop with Colorado ties writes (Fox affiliate)
– Column defending cops in Ferguson sparks online fury (CNN)

Let me first point out that, although most articles just call him “cop” and that might leave you the impression that he’s a stereotypical white police officer1, he’s actually an immigrant who was born and raised in Jaipur, India, a “scholar of Urdu mystical poetry and an Indian classical music form called Dhrupad,” and “a professor of homeland security at Colorado Tech University,” in addition to being a cop with the LAPD. For somebody with such an interesting background to show up in the midst of one of the most contentious episode of racial tension in the United States is worth noting. Life has a funny way of not fitting the narratives we expect it to.

The angry reactions to his post are also misguided. Dutta is actually making a reasonable case that doesn’t include limitless authority for cops. As he writes:

I know it is scary for people to be stopped by cops. I also understand the anger and frustration if people believe they have been stopped unjustly or without a reason. I am aware that corrupt and bully cops exist. When it comes to police misconduct, I side with the ACLU: Having worked as an internal affairs investigator, I know that some officers engage in unprofessional and arrogant behavior; sometimes they behave like criminals themselves. I also believe every cop should use a body camera to record interactions with the community at all times. Every police car should have a video recorder.

His point is simply that reacting aggressively to a cop is not a good response when the cop is issuing lawful orders and even, in almost all cases, when the cop has overstepped his or her bounds. There are checks and balances for holding individual cops accountable for individual abuse and also for holding entire units accountable for systematic abuse. Now, you could argue that those checks and balances are broken. That’s a serious consideration, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with Dutta’s argument. Even if the checks on police abuse are broken, responding by aggressively resisting police authority is illegal (in most cases) and stupid (in all cases).

Cops have wives and children they want to go home to, and they have to defend themselves in life-threatening situations. This includes situations where they are dealing with an unarmed person.

There are no national statistics on how many times officers’ guns are taken away. But the FBI says that of the 616 law enforcement officers killed on duty by criminals from 1994 through 2003, 52 were killed with their own weapon, amounting to 8 percent. (

So the mere fact that you don’t have a gun doesn’t mean that a cop doesn’t see you as a threat. You are a threat, and cops know that because they know nearly one in 10 of their fallen brothers and sisters was brought down with their own weapon. One of the problems here is that cops understand violent encounters. Bystanders and arm-chair lawyers don’t. Civilian reactions of “couldn’t the cop have used a taser?” or “couldn’t they have shot him in the leg?” or “why did they have to shoot him so many times?” are almost invariably founded in ignorance.

The deeper reality is that government is defined by the exclusive right to exercise force. We can go back almost 100 years to the political theorist Max Weber. He defined the state as a “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” A state is defined as the group with the monopoly on violence. In practice, individual people are invested with the monopoly on violence. We call them law enforcement officers. It’s not fair and it’s not supposed to be fair. It’s a monopoly. They have broad legal rights to use force on you. You don’t, except in very narrow and practically useless situations2, have a right to use force on them.

Unless you reject all government, this is a state of affairs you will have to learn to live with. That doesn’t mean that we can’t change anything about our current system. Arguments about how the police use their authority to boss people around are reasonable. Arguments about whether the police can boss people around are not. Rejecting the authority of cops wholesale–which is what a lot of the anger seems to boil down to–is like getting upset that in a democracy sometimes the majority does the wrong thing. It’s s defect, but there’s no better alternative.

If there’s one criticism I have of Dutta’s piece, it’s that he acknowledges individual acts of police corruption but not the possibility of systemic injustice. That is the real issue here. It still doesn’t change his central point, however, and no amount of anger will.

4 thoughts on “Cop: If you don’t want to get shot, do what I tell you.”

  1. I listened to an interesting interview on the local radio (may have been a local NPR station) of an African-American female cop from the South. She discussed some of the reasons that police forces are often mostly white in southern towns with high black populations. She said that the black community views joining the force as a betrayal. Her family was upset with her and worried for her when she became a police officer, but they particularly saw it is a betrayal of their people. In her experience, there was huge resistance to blacks becoming police officers in their own community, because the police are viewed as the enemy. So this often results in disproportionate numbers of white officers in traditionally black towns, heightening tensions especially in the South. It also contributes to number problems in other geographic regions, but her personal experience was in the South. Interesting perspective.

  2. There are situations where I will resist the order of a police officer. They are few and I truly hope very unlikely except in special circumstances. For example in my state there are several counties where law enforcement is very anti 2A. I have a permit to carry a handgun in my state but in some of these counties the officers feel it is okay to not only remove my weapon from my possession during a routine traffic stop, but that said legal possession also entitles them to a search of my vehicle without my consent.

    I would first advise the officer politely that the safest location for the fire arm is where it currently rests (holstered). Second that if he wishes to remove it from my possession he will have to get the supervising officer to tell me by what right or reason he can seize my property, and third that I do not consent to such. The reason for this is that it is likely on video from their dash cam.

    For them to seize a fire arm there has to be a legitimate reason beyond just a traffic stop. Second by stating I do not consent I set up a bad legal position for the officer if he decides to take it. In doing so he would then be required to justify to a judge why he had a reason to ignore two separate Amendments of the Constitution (4 and 14 I think) and without sufficient reason it wouod end up being a significant payout based on federal case law.

    The reason I say this is that there are bad cops out there, not all of them are though. Plenty are just doing a job and trying to make sure they get home. Some don’t know any better, and despite what many think there are lots of good ones. I know several where I live and a few in other cities where I have lived.

    If I do not agree with an officers instructions based on constitutional arguments I will advise that I do not, but unless I feel my life is in jeopardy in almost every case I will comply. In the case that the officer is under duress such as in Ferguson I would probably comply even to generally unlawful commands due to the nature of the situation.

    The issue I have with journalists taking thr martyr route on the officers being mean and rude and possibly breaching laws, I fault the journalists as most likely causing the trouble. It is more likely that they failed to follow a set of instructions or simply ignored them putting themselves in danger unnecessarily and by chance also likely making it more dangerous and harder for the officer to do his job.

    When going through training in the military you must throw a live grenade. You are trained for it, and given specific instructions. You are also told that if you do not follow instructions and the live grenade ends up inside your block wall area the range sergeant will make one and only one attempt to remove you from inside. If you don’t go, he will leave you there. It is also likely you will be in deeper poo than you ever thought possible.

    Why such a strange example? Officers live a life of being put in harms way regularly. They arent going to take it well when during the course of being in harms way you blatantly and purposefully ignore them to make it worse. Sorry I have no sympathy for the journalists here.

  3. This quote from the editor of Reason sums it up better than I could:

    “If you have the attitude that you are owed deference and instant obedience by the people around you, and that you are justified in using violence against them if they don’t comply, we already have a problem. That’s especially true if official institutions back you up, which they do.”

    It takes one negative interaction with cops to enduringly taint one’s view of them. In my case, it was a young female park ranger who (from my standpoint) threatened to arrest me based on her own failure to act in any sort of accord with good sense. And I’m a privileged white guy. I can’t imagine what the people suffering under the martinet rule of the Ferguson city government must feel. Think this last sentence is an overstatement? Read this:

  4. There are so many issues with that website and it’s references I don’t know where to begin, and have started over 4 times already.

    Don’t circular reference, don’t cite only one type of crime to portray a point that would include not only all crime but also civil penalties from other areas.

    That being said, Ferguson is jacked and the folks there need to get out and vote to get it fixed. It can be done, but not unless they vote in off years or get REALLY lucky and elect someone who gets rid of the corruption.

    Lastly, if you are aggressive when responding to an officers commands (legal or not) you are likely to get cuffed and have it sorted out later. Being respectful (even if refusing to follow the order) and calm is your best bet.

    I have sympathy for the residents of Ferguson, but still absolutely zero for these ‘martyr’ journalists, whom I honestly see as one of the culprits for what happened in Ferguson in the first place. Their narrative fit a specific schedule to create a national sensation for ratings. Effectively, Ferguson went through that so that news channels could get ratings and that is what is sad about the whole fiasco that occurred after the devastating loss of a man’s life.

    I sincerely hope that it is remembered next year when it’s time to vote and the path to fixing it can be started.

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