The media coverage of police confrontations is changing the mantra of young officers to: “Serve and protect — but for God’s sake, if you want to stay employed, don’t enforce anything!”
In the wake of the “Tossed Teenager” in Columbia, S.C., police officers may be coming to the conclusion that inaction has certain career-enhancing possibilities that enforcement lacks.
So, were the actions of the Richland County sheriff’s deputy appropriate? Before that can be answered, let’s consider the situation he was called to. A student violated school policy by texting in class and was ordered by her teacher to surrender her phone. The student refused, and the police liaison officer was called to enforce the teacher’s request.
That officers should be stationed in schools is a no-brainer. They should be there to safeguard the students and to investigate crimes both against students and committed by students. However, they should not be used to enforce school discipline. And while I know from experience both as a police officer and as a teacher that enforcing school rules can be a slippery task, it is not the police officer’s job.
After the student refused to give up her phone, the teacher should have asked the student to leave the classroom and make her way to the principal’s office. If the student refused that, the principle or dean of students should have been notified, and the student should have been intercepted by school personnel (or private security, if employed by the school) in the hallway after class.
In a worst-case scenario where a student becomes verbally or physically threatening or abusive (read: “assaultive”) and the police are called, a minimum of two officers should always be called to respond.
The reasons are manifold. First, if force is required to bring the student under control, there is much less chance of violence and injury if the student sees that the odds are not in his or her favor. Second, if a physical confrontation ensues, it’s much simpler for two officers to control and, if necessary, subdue a student. Finally, if other students enter the imbroglio, two officers have a much better chance of de-escalating the situation than does a single overwhelmed officer.
So, back to the question of the officer’s questionable actions: Let’s first consider physiological factors. Being in a confrontation, in a full classroom, “on stage” so to speak, with a disruptive, uncooperative, bratty, disrespectful young lady, is a very uncomfortable situation. When humans enter such situations, their adrenaline starts to flow, giving them a boost of energy that can save their lives if a reserve of strength is needed. Unfortunately, if an officer is not careful, this adrenaline rush can distort his or her actions.
From the video, we see the deputy attempt to pry the student from her desk. As he does so, the student pulls away, the inertia carrying her back so that her desk tips over. The officer, now “all in,” adrenaline surging like Hurricane Katrina, pulls the student from her desk and sends her sliding across the smooth floor.
Did he overreact? Yes, he did. But his options were limited by the situation he was in. Though it seems ridiculous for a big, strong male cop to call for help, he should have requested backup and handled the call like any other in-progress crime.
The second question: Should the deputy have been fired? He should not have been fired, and neither should the student have been fired across the tile floor.
Mistakes were made. Luckily, no one was injured. Both parties should have been disciplined, counseled and retrained. The school and the sheriff’s department should have re-evaluated the role of the school’s liaison officer, and a new plan should have been put in place for dealing with future contumacious students.
As a retired officer, I can state with some certainty that nearly every cop has overreacted at some point. I have seen this happen and have experienced it personally. Most of us can be thankful there was no cellphone trained on us when we had our “out of character” moment. Like every officer who replays a personal failure in his head, it’s easy to Monday-morning-quarterback the incident once the adrenaline rush has subsided. In the calm aftermath, it’s simple to reconfigure one’s actions so that a more Disney-like ending is achieved. But that’s not how the police job works.
Being human can be both a detriment and an advantage in doing that job. With the firing of this South Carolina deputy — and of the Minneapolis transit cop who may have overreacted with a St. Paul teen — it seems the convenient default protocol for departments to appease the media and the community is to fire the cop.
I’m afraid that while the cop job is still appealing to young men and women who want a career of public service, it is becoming less so with each replay of each controversial arrest.
Richard Greelis, of Bloomington, is a retired law enforcement officer, teacher and author.