*Last week police in Barstow, California were exposed as having been unnecessarily forceful with a pregnant African-Americans woman, Charlena Michelle Cooks, who was arrested because she refused to identify herself to officers after arguing with a Caucasian woman.
(Scroll down to see the video)
The facts of the case are pretty straightforward: two women argue, one called police, after hearing the story the police decided this isn’t worth them arresting anyone, in speaking with the black woman the police asked her name and she wouldn’t give it to them.
There are two related but separate issues in play here. First is the proper way to behave around law enforcement officers; second is how those officers treat you. I think these two issues are equally important so do not read a value judgment into the order I’ve placed them.
The first issue is important because it is about the immediate well being of a person dealing with people who have the ability to kill. For anyone in that situation it is imperative that they do everything in their power to come out alive. This is why people, especially those who are part of groups that have historically been targeted by police lacking integrity. You don’t know who you are dealing with but it goes without a doubt that there is a power imbalance and the police officer(s) have the advantage.
The second issue is important because if we, as a society, get this issue worked out the first issue probably goes away. Even from a societal vantage point this second issue is not necessarily more important. While police training may be giving officers a certain mindset when patrolling certain areas or encountering certain people, any one on one interaction can overcome prejudices in an officers mind. Furthermore most police officers are products of an integrated society and will uphold the dignity of the people they are speaking with. So even on a macro level, the second issue should not trump the first.
I’ve written multiple times about inequalities both in the United States and internationally. There are plenty of ways to argue about the second issue, and plenty of time to do it. When you are trying to convince the police of your version of events that might not be the appropriate time.
I’m sorry if this seems overly conciliatory. But if you think that then you haven’t fully separated the issues. When someone is driving a car on the sidewalk you don’t argue with them about where cars belong – you get out of the way.
Now – after she has made it home safely – Ms. Cooks should shout from the rooftops how she was unfairly treated. She should sue the police department. She should get an apology from Barstow dignitaries.
But let’s understand that without handling the first issue she wouldn’t be alive to do any of that stuff.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.