I’ve been thinking about writing a post on this topic since the events in Ferguson, and a couple stories have emerged in the last week that illustrate my point perfectly.

Police have a dangerous job, of this there is no doubt. We task them to put their lives on the line and deal with the criminal element of our society on a daily basis. But they are also public servants, they work for us. We decide which laws they enforce and how they are empowered to enforce them. Just as we’ve enshrined in the Bill of Rights those things government cannot do, so too do police have limits on their power.
Police concerned with their safety or the public’s safety will always test the limits of their power, this is normal. And before the near ubiquity of video and audio recording devices, challenges to this overreach were often framed as a he said-she said debate where one side was a public servant and the other was an alleged or suspected criminal. In that match-up who are we likely to believe?
Those days have ended. Many people now record their encounters with police and there is a growing movement of people who, as a hobby, test the police’s response to being recorded performing public duties in a public space. The civil libertarian in me loves the idea, even if they do act like assholes sometimes.
Which brings me to this first video. Police in Boynton Beach, Florida pulled over a car full of black males who were, according to the Police Chief, within a two mile perimeter set up to respond to a violent home invasion. This, in and of itself, is not probable cause to initiate a stop but let’s set that aside for the moment. Watch the video and read the accompanying response by the Police Chief. I want to focus on one sentence in particular:
"When I watch this video, I don’t see a car full of young men acting in a manner consistent with fear of police."
The Chief is right, these kids were not respectful. But that is not a crime. In fact the officers never explain during the course of the video why the vehicle was pulled over, what crime the kids are suspected of, or why they need IDs from the passengers. These kids were forcibly taken from the car and handcuffed for the "crime" of not acting in a manner consistent with fear of police.
The second video comes from a town near and dear to my heart, St. Paul, MN. A 28 year-old father, Chris Lollie, was waiting to pick up his kids when a private security guard informed him that the place he was sitting was private property. Chris argued, as there were no signs indicating this, but left the area and was then approached by a police officer who asked for his ID.
Chris refused, because he had committed no crime – and the officer never indicates that he had – and a second officer approaches and almost immediately assaults Chris and painfully places him under arrest as he screams for help in front of his children who were apparently approaching him at the same time.
I can hear the objections now – why weren’t these people respectful toward the police? If they’d acted in that manner nothing bad would have happened to them.
Perhaps, but this objection misses the point by a wide margin. Policemen and women enforce our laws, they do not create them. The law in both Minnesota and Florida explicitly state the conditions under which a citizen is required to provide identification to a law enforcement officer. Our law enforcement officers know this (or should) but often demand ID when the law does not require it anyway, that’s what they’re trained to do.
What they’re not trained to do, apparently, is deal with a citizen when they know their rights and refuse to provide their ID. Spend some time on this site if you’re thinking these are just isolated incidents. You can, and I have, spend an hour or two watching YouTube videos and reading stories about police trying their hardest to put the fear of government into people who are peacefully exercising their rights.
This country was not founded with the intent of putting the fear of government into people and making them comply with illegal demands. Quite the opposite, this country was founded by people with a heavy dose of skepticism about a powerful government acting in a manner inconsistent with the will of the people.
The government should fear its citizens, not the other way around. The Police Chief in Boynton Beach, FL has the formula precisely backwards. And while I don’t always applaud their methods, I do applaud those citizens who choose to exercise their rights in a manner which often sees them roughed up, assaulted, and arrested by a police force intending to put fear into their hearts.
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