As sad and demoralizing a fact as it is, it has been shown time (and time and time) and again, that police are NOT always to be trusted to protect and to serve. I state here, as a pre-emptive rebuttal to those who would pretend not to know the obvious, that this essay and example does not apply to all law enforcement personnel. My point is that it should not apply to any – that every last and single officer should be expected to respect the rights of the citizens they serve, and subvert their own needs and impulses while on the clock.
Unfortunately, as the case below tragically and more than adequately demonstrates, it is all too easy to get swept up in the power trip under the guise of being “strong and brave and assertive” or whatever, undoubtedly a product of the “don’t take any shit” philosophy ground into the heads, hearts, and backs of absolutely all police academy cadets.
What follows is an example of a tragedy, an abuse of power, and a subversion of justice that didn’t have to – and should not have happened. We the citizenry have a civic – a moral – obligation to see that this travesty be reversed, and that such a disgusting abuse of power and taking advantage of the disabled never, ever happens again.
I’m going to apologize in advance for the intense tone this response is likely to take, as I can already feel my body responding to my anger about this.
I’m also going to please, please ask anyone who is so inclined to counsel me to “see the big picture” or “don’t get hung up on” this or that, please don’t bother. I’ve spent more hours pondering, worrying about, seething, reading, pacing and writing about just this type of issue than most (not all) bloggers, citizens or even professional journalists have in their entire careers and/or online expositional lives.
A Virginia teenager, Reginald “Neli” Latson, 19, who is autistic, was sitting on the steps of his local library when onlookers/residents decided that this young black male wearing a hoodie looked or was acting suspiciously. The police were notified and soon arrived.
The responding officer, one deputy Thomas Calverley, 56, a school resource officer (seriously?), who had been “informed” that Latson might have a gun, approached him innocently and casually enough with a “What’s up, man?”. Good. Not bad – be calm and establish communication without being aggressive or accusatory.
But then, upon asking his name, Latson refused to give it. Now, I’m thinking that an autistic person, already compromised in the realms of all things social and subtextual, has done a remarkable job to acquire the skill and confidence to use it to not answer a stranger’s personal question.
Yeah, yeah – but he was a cop. Says who? His uniform? You know how many crooked operations exist that can supply anyone with an authentic looking uniform of their choice with a click of a mouse (and a credit card number, of course)? Look, I’m not saying that the cop should have known that he was dealing with a kid with Asperger’s, but you’d think that a public servant in possession of a firearm and the authority to use it would be required to be alert to the cognitive and emotional states of those he comes in contact with – *ESPECIALLY* in a low-intensity, one on one interaction such as this was at first.
But, even if the officer acted “with an abundance of caution” (this author’s characterization), in arresting Latson, he still screwed up in not announcing that possibility beforehand – for ANY citizen, compromised or not.
No, it is not a happy or righteous thing that this teen responded with physical aggression. But, it is understandable, and, upon the inevitable gathering of facts and determining the entire nature of the situation, it would have been appropriate (frankly, I say mandated by numerous statutes protecting the disabled) to release him from custody without charge.
That’s right. In an ideally compassionate and just world, the officer would have seen and ackowledged how this got out of control, and how he as the professional was possessed (having had 33 years on the job!) of the experience and the authority to have controlled this situation without incident. That he didn’t is either a gross and frightening example of police incompetence, or, I allege, a manifestation of the all-too-common attitude that a responding officer owes no answer to anyone and is justified in taking whatever action he feels like to “secure the scene”.
This officer behaved recklessly – and he refused to accept responsibility for his part in excalating the anxiety and, yes, aggression of a disabled teenager who, I’ll remind you, was guilty of no crime when the officer showed up and caused one to happen.
It is an absolute disgrace. It is disgusting and mean and arrogant. It smacks of the self-righteous entitlement to power, authority and access to material wealth and position – not to mention
the sadistic but never confessed militant joy of yesteryears’ slave owners indulging their sick and inapt superiority at the whipping post.
I’d bet every material thing I own (okay, not an impressive bet, but symbolic) that this cop could have but chose NOT to avert the escalation that occured.
Why? How could I say such a thing. BECAUSE I’VE SEEN AND SUFFERED SUCH A THING FIRST HAND! No no – not to the point of assault, as I still haven’t learned to stick up for myself beyond the editorial pulpit. When the hell are the police academies gonna stop enculturating future cops to suspect everybody, treat everyone like a lying criminal, always tow the (blue) line, and never ever betray your partner, even when s/he is behaving like a lying criminal?!
The main lesson and goal is to foster an US versus THEM attitude, and to always justify taking the most aggressive action possible.
I reiterate – I don’t even wanna hear the “don’tcha think you’re exaggerating?” – because NO, I am not exaggerating one bit.
This cop could very well have offered a reason for his inquiry. He could have – oh my GOD and perish the thought! – tried to establish a conversation and even the most cursory of a relationship or rapport.
Remember – HE’S supposed to be the professional! Surely if I, as a
paraprofessional (that is, one who works UNDER a classroom teacher), can be required (and gladly so!) to know THE most rudimentary de-escalation and crisis intervention and prevention skills, a guy toting around a firearm should have to demonstrate at LEAST that level of interpersonal and “first do no harm” skill.
Ha! That’s something I think should be a creed that goes WELL outside medicine. ‘Cause, see, a scalpel or a stethoscope cannot do the harm that a gun (or the powers of arrest) can do!
But the cop is exempt from such ethical standards and scrutiny. He’s given a pass because society says the ones who do the brave and macho thing are heroes always.
‘Cause that’s just the way it is.
This cop could have prevented this. He didn’t want to. He just wanted to
assert his power so that this autistic kid (who even I know will NEVER respond positively to “do it because I said so!” tactic) would VERY PREDICTABLY respond in a volatile and irrational (to NTs) way.
Oh, and another thing. The cop didn’t find a gun, right? He responded to the scene because people thought he seemed suspicious. Hmmm…..I wonder what it was on which they came to this conclusion? No – I don’t wonder at all. They saw this guy with some atypical mannerisms, and perhaps vocalizations and unusual gazing behavior and they thought – oh, he seems like a shifty one!
Ten and a half years!? Did the cop die or something? Permanent disability? Ha! Justice is hardly ever so poetic! There are child rapists who haven’t been sentenced like that! Ah, but I guess having your every which way with an innocent and tragically all too powerless child and ruining his/her life isn’t as bad pissing off an anything-but-innocent and tragically all too powerful bully cop and giving his gargantuan ego a good hard smack or two.
The kid dared to express his disobedience with a physical attack. No, not a
safe thing for society and not something I “condone” exactly. But, shit – I am just BETTING that I could have handled that situation without a mark on me!
I did for six years as a 1:1 aide to an autistic kid. Then the oh-so-wise
powers that be decided we needed “a break from each other”, and reassigned me.
The second day this student had his new aide, he hit her in the face and was expelled.
Six years without a mark. Two days and she gets whacked. Something tells me she decided to take the arrogant “be tough” approach that I knew – KNEW – would not only be counterproductive, but unjustified, unethical, and ultimately tragically provocative.
No – sorry – don’t. Do NOT tell me that a cop’s life is on the line.
PUH-!@#%ing-LEEZE ! First – that’s the job they accept. Yes, and don’t tell me that I’m disrespecting the brave and the noble. I know a couple of good cops – and respect the hell out of them – because they also happen to be pretty freakin’ decent human beings.
But the intersection is far too rare. It’s a very strong and special person who can assert and live his inner decency and integrity in a profession where those are NOT priorities. Stay alive at all costs is the motto. Live to eat another donut.
Go home to your kids? Fine – that’s a goal and obligation and worthy life that almost makes forgiveable the paranoia and arrogance displayed by this deputy. Almost.
How would you feel, officer, if somebody treated your kid this way? Ahhh….uuhhh! Bzzzt….Nope….don’t even. It’s not different and you’re lying if you think you’d be okay with it. Then again – who am I to say. I mean, can you imagine being the kid of somebody who habitually thinks the worst of people? No damned thank you.
And what is Mr. Latson gonna be like after 126 months in jail? Older. Maybe more confused. Maybe the victim of assault, theft, mutilation, rape or murder.
Or perhaps suicide. That’s a distinct possibility. But hell – it was worth it to teach this freak a lesson for not just bowing down to your almighty authority and bending over like Bubba surely will be having him do over and over and over again.
Because that’s what happens to the weak and vulnerable on the inside. I mean, why the fuck should it be BETTER than just the same disrespect and abuse he suffered from you on the outside?
Nope. If – IF he’s still alive, Mr. Latson will not have “learned” any lesson – because he had none you could teach or had the right to force on him. He’ll still be on the spectrum. He’ll still have no @#$@%ing clue about the subtext and “common sense” rules that are unjustly imposed on even the unaware. He’ll still need the respect that IS the defining characteristic of any appropriate empathy that is required to interact with him effectively and humanely.
And a cop has no right to fall short of that.
You heard me. He ain’t a custodian. He’s not a fry cook. He’s not a Wall Street exec. You wield a gun, a scalpel, a gavel or a classroom, you have the MORAL DUTY to put others first!
That goes for parents too – but don’t even get me started there.
Nope – when this person leaves prison sometime in the autumn of 2021 (if he lives that long inside!), he’ll have acquired none of the skills, advocacy, resources or legislative reform that is needed to live successfully and fairly in America.
He’ll be 10 and one half years older. And he’ll still be going to the library and waiting outside until it opens.
And this cop will be enjoying his eleventh year of retirement. Congratulation officer on the golden years slack you just earned on the back and at the helpless expense of an innocent man you decided to cage like the strange animal you and too much of society thinks he is. Shame on you, sir. I hope you go to the library sometime in your elder leisure and get harassed by your replacement. And I hope he shows you the same respect you showed Mr. Latson Police officers have the power, authority and position to effect absolutely positive change, public safety, and have a precious opportunity to be a positive, honest, service-oriented and welcome members of the communities they serve. Most of them do this job admirably most of the time.
But sometimes, sometimes, they fall way – way short. Until we are in a place and time where this public trust is honored and met MUCH more seriously, and almost without exception, we cannot blindly trust the police to protect and to serve, to do the job they swore to do.
Because that’s not the way it is.