The cop video has become our Rorschach inkblot test.
There is an altercation between a police officer and a citizen, usually a young black man. Inevitably these days, someone is there to film it, or at least part of it, enough to cause a visceral reaction.
This happened — yes, again — recently when a Metro Transit officer arrested a young black man, Draon Armstrong, who admitted that he hadn’t paid the fare for a ride on a light-rail train. He reportedly used “colorful” language to the officer while saying he wasn’t going to pay the fine. The officer — using police protocol, according to Metro Transit Police Chief John Harrington — handcuffed the man.
Then, boom. Down they go, all caught on shaky film by the man’s sister. It would seem most people could watch the video and determine with some consistency whether the takedown was necessary or not, but it doesn’t happen that way.
Commenters on media websites chime in. Some see a young man, who obviously broke a law by evading the fare, getting just what he deserved after appearing to squirm. Others see a man complying with the officer, only to be thrown to the ground even though he didn’t seem to be a threat to anyone.
The incident seemed to be yet another prelude for a forum on July 23 about exactly this kind of interaction. Organized by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota and presented by TCF Bank, “Picking Up the Pieces: A Conference on Ferguson and Beyond,” features panelists ranging from activists to prosecutors and includes Mark Kappelhoff, a deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. He has been supervising the division’s investigations in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore.
Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the local ACLU, said that he invited representatives from police, too, but that he doesn’t expect them to show. That’s a shame. If there is any problem we should be addressing by getting various sides together, it’s this one.
I asked Samuelson why people look at the video of Armstrong and the officer and see completely different things.
“Some people just feel, ‘You broke the law, whatever happens is on you,’ ” Samuelson said. Unless, of course, the person being taken down is your son, daughter or husband.
“A lot of it has to do with your previous experiences,” said Samuelson. “That there is a racial divide in this country is not news, but I think a lot more of us, including me, are affected by that than we let on.”
Nekima Levy-Pounds, president of the Minneapolis NAACP branch, said reaction to the incident mirrors reaction nationwide to police-involved shootings and arrests caught on video.
“We have a huge racial divide in terms of how people react,” said Levy-Pounds. “Part of it is the mixed view of the role of police in the community that people have. I think there is a large contrast between the experiences black people have with police and the experiences white people have with police.”
How does she explain the backing of the police officer by Harrington, who is black?
Class, education and status also play a part, Levy-Pounds said. “I don’t think the fact he’s a black chief gives him more credibility,” she said. “He should have just said they were going to investigate, instead of speculating. That’s why we have no confidence in the system and no confidence in Chief Harrington to be objective.”
I respect Harrington, who declined an interview. He grew up on Chicago’s South Side, so he knows about police relations with young men of color. A Dartmouth graduate who studied Far Eastern religion, he has done his share to help those young men when he ran a nonprofit between cop jobs. He once told me the hardest thing he did when he was the chief in St. Paul was to discipline officers who screw up.
I watched the video of Armstrong’s arrest. I don’t think anyone would argue that he was being a model citizen, and I buy that he was probably rude to the officer. He admitted breaking the law, but failure to pay a fare is a misdemeanor, certainly not worthy of a physical response. If there was any effort to resist by Armstrong, I didn’t see it. But I also don’t know what happened just before or just after the event occurred.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman hasn’t seen the video, but in general he says that “the amount of force needs to reflect the amount of violence that has occurred. You don’t shoot someone in the back who is running away.”
Freeman said that officers don’t usually have the luxury of taking a deep breath before reacting and that he’s sympathetic to their tough jobs. “It’s pretty simple,” he said. “We [in the criminal justice system] have to be conscious of how we want to be treated and how we want our families to be treated.”
Last year I wrote about a similar incident in St. Paul, when officers used a Taser to take down a young black man who was told to leave a public seating area. The man videotaped the encounter with his phone, and skyway video gave another perspective. There was a similar reaction, with some people seeing the man start to struggle, and others, including me, seeing a man complying with police orders.
At the time, I sent it to three current or retired police offers I know. One sided with the officers on the call, another was on the fence and the third called it an unnecessary arrest.
We see what we want to see, or perhaps what we’ve been trained to see.
Samuelson said police reaction to the man’s noncompliance is partly due to how we judge youth. “Every generation sees the next generation as scofflaws and worthless, even the greatest generation, maybe even back to George Washington,” said Samuelson. “But white people who are scofflaws don’t get knocked to the ground nearly as much.”