Friday, August 22, 2014

A Letter to Officer Sunil Dutta: My Thoughts on Ferguson

The following is an open response to Sunil Dutta.

According to the Washington Post, Sunil Dutta is a professor of homeland security at Colorado Tech University and a police officer with 17 years on the force at Los Angeles Police Department.  A few days ago the Washington Post printed an Op-Ed piece written by Dutta entitled “I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me.”

This blog post is an open response to Mr. Dutta with regard to his article.

Right off the bat, Dutta lays down some pretty reckless blanket statements.  After giving a brief introduction to let the reader know he is referencing the situation Ferguson, Mo., Dutta states “cops are not murderers. No officer goes out in the field wishing to shoot anyone, armed or unarmed.” 

I think the vast majority of people would agree that generally speaking, police officers are not murderers – and that MOST police officers don’t ever want to shoot anyone.  But to say that “No” police officer goes out wishing to shoot someone is a baseless, biased statement.  I’ve heard officers with my own ears say things like “the pay sucks but at least I get to carry a gun.”  It’s unfortunate.  Some police officers believe that the feeling of power they get by wielding a badge and a weapon is a job perk.  A feeling that can offset negative factors associated with the job.

To say that no person in your field feels a certain way is ludicrous.  That would be like me saying “lawyers are not thieves.  No lawyer goes into a court room wishing to take money that doesn’t rightfully belong to them.”  Or as a Catholic, me saying “priests are not bad people.  No priest goes into a parish wishing to hurt a child.”

C’mon, Dutta – you’re better than that.  There are bad apples in every field.  Failure to acknowledge that problem makes you a part of that problem.  But the bad apples in the Catholic church generally aren’t packing guns.  Most lawyers I know don’t keep deadly weapons on or about their person.  Cops do.  So the bad apples in your field are a lot more dangerous.  You should take a stronger position to cut them out.

Dutta acknowledges at some point that police officers can make mistakes, but he puts the responsibility on citizens to ensure safety.  Dutta’s self described “bottom line” is this: “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.”  His point is that the police may, in fact, be violating your rights.  But you shouldn’t stick up for yourself in any way.  Because if you do and the police officer shoots you, that is the path which you have chosen.

As a society we cannot accept Dutta’s proposal.  The only answer we as a society should live with is that police officers, who are supposed to enforce the law, should KNOW the law.  They should be knowledgeable and they should be vigilant to guard the Constitutional rights of the general public.  Those officers in Ferguson, Mo. who threw gas bombs at news vans and arrested reporters for filming – they either genuinely thought they had the authority to do what they did, or they knew better but didn’t care.

Those police officers were at best, ignorant of the law they are charged with the duty of enforcing.  And ignorance and guns (tear gas, tanks, etc.) don’t mix very well.  Dutta’s answer is that the reporters should have been quiet, stopped filming, and refrained from any objection to their rights being violated.

I refuse to accept that, Mr. Dutta.  I don’t trust a government that says you shouldn’t question it. 

Sometimes the problem is a belligerent citizen.  Sometimes the problem is a hothead cop.  But we cannot accept the proposition that people should not question authority.  The right to speak out, nonviolently, is essential liberty.  Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither Liberty nor safety*

Although mortally flawed, Dutta’s article is not completely without merit.

As we skip ahead in Mr. Dutta’s piece, he comes to a couple of ideas that make a whole lot of sense. “[I] 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.”  Dutta submits that employing video recording devices on the police officer’s person and in cruisers will reduce the rate of police misconduct and the rate of false complaints.  I couldn’t agree more.

Unfortunately, the KSP disagrees.  And the vast majority of city police stations in Kentucky.  And most County Sheriff departments.

Do you want to save millions in tax dollars?  Do you want to reduce the number of criminals who “get off on technicalities” and make sure that dangerous people are convicted for their crimes?  If so, you should support the mandatory use of lapel and cruiser video cameras.  This situation is win-win.  On the other side of the coin, this will drastically reduce the instances of police misconduct.

The only people who don’t want cameras are dirty cops and criminals (not that I have anything against criminals, per se).

I also agree with Dutta’s proposition that someone being arrested (or having their rights violated) should refrain from showing “anger and resentment.”  If your rights are being violated you should voice your objection in a peaceful, respectful way.  Violence and aggression against a police officer will not end well for the citizen. 

Dutta’s misstep is that he goes too far.  Dutta crosses the line when he faults a citizen for challenging a police officer in a respectful, peaceful way.  “do what the officer tells you.”  “Don’t tell me that I can’t stop you.”

Unfortunately for Mr. Dutta, freedom of speech and nonviolent protest are central to our rights as American citizens.  So don’t tell us not to challenge you, Mr. Dutta. 

That makes you part of the problem.

*Benjamin Franklin

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