In retrospect, Los Angeles Police Officer Sunil Dutta might have picked a different day to publish an opinion article on the Washington Post website explaining that when cops injure citizens it is almost invariably the citizens’ fault.
Dutta’s article appeared Tuesday morning, after another night of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, where less than two weeks ago unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer. And just as the article was grabbing attention on social media came the news that only a few miles away from Ferguson, police had shot another young black man dead.
The victim of Tuesday’s shooting was, unlike Brown, armed. A police officer reportedly shot the man as he brandished a knife. But the second death helped make Dutta’s article an immediate sensation on social media and online news sites. Its headline seemed as though it was intended to provoke: “I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me”.
The possibility that the Post’s editors had sexed-up the headline in order to attract readers was easily dismissed after just a few paragraphs.
“Regardless of what happened with Mike Brown, in the overwhelming majority of cases it is not the cops, but the people they stop, who can prevent detentions from turning into tragedies,” Dutta wrote. The idea that it is a citizen’s responsibility not to be injured by a police officer didn’t sit well with many people who read Dutta’s piece.
“Cop Writes Washington Post Op-Ed Defending Police Brutality,” was the headline on Benjamin Freed’s Washingtonian blog post.
“We need to change the relationship between police and civilians from one of distrust to one of mutual respect, but given recent events, I don’t know how we could,” wrote Joanna Rothkopf in Salon.
The angriest reactions, though, were reserved for Dutta’s advice to the general public.
“[H]ere is the bottom line: 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. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge. Don’t scream at me that you pay my salary, and don’t even think of aggressively walking towards me. Most field stops are complete in minutes. How difficult is it to cooperate for that long?”
Even if you are convinced that the officer is behaving illegally, Dutta wrote, compliance is the best route to take.
“But if you believe (or know) that the cop stopping you is violating your rights or is acting like a bully, I guarantee that the situation will not become easier if you show your anger and resentment.”
In his defense, Dutta argued that cops should be held to high standards and that citizens should be free to sue the police for overstepping their authority. He tried to explain why it’s best for citizens being detained to obey without question by pointing out that cops conducting what might seem to be random stops might actually be looking for a violent criminal, and are therefore in a heightened state of alertness for possible dangers.
However, days after the shooting death of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, and with images of police armed to the teeth responding to unarmed protestors with tear gas and rubber bullets, Dutta’s piece appears to have had exactly the opposite effect its author intended.
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