June 23, 2010

All a Black Woman Needs is a Good Smack in the Face: Part I

That seems to be the message being delivered from the media ether this past few weeks.  It was a message with enough potency to stimulate me out of my writing lethargy of late. This particular topic comes to us from two very different scenarios; the police punch to the dome of a teenage black female behaving badly in Seattle, and the caught on tape assault and humiliation of the colossally misguided and obviously emotionally damaged Kat Stacks by idiot thug associates of BowWow. I'll have more to say about that in Part II..

First up though, is the police smack of a black female teen in Seattle. By now, the general facts are known.  Officer Ian Walsh attempted to give a citation for jaywalking to 19-year old Marilyn Levias.  She refused to identify herself  for the citation, essentially ignored the officer and attempted to walk away. Officer Walsh grabbed her to physically detain her and she resisted.  Presumably, he intended to arrest her at that point for not complying with his directive to identify herself and accept the citation. A 17 year old young woman, a friend of Ms. Levias, attempted to intervene and shoved Officer Walsh.  He responded by  punching her directly in the face, which had the desired effect of causing her to back up off him.  He then resumed arresting Ms. Levias, which took some doing as she continued to be uncooperative.

The city prosecutor has indicated that jaywalking was a major problem due to 60+ accidents over a 5 year period prior to 2006 involving pedestrians in this area and a 2006 action plan called for it to be addressed with increased safety patrols.  As it happens, that bit of CYA doesn't seem to hold up however.  There have been no accidents due to jaywalking in that area for five years.

It pains me to say it, but in fairness to Officer Walsh, I'm not sure he had a better or more immediately effective course of action available to him. I've watched the video several times and here is the question. At the point she pushes him, stop the video and ask yourself "Okay, I'm the cop, what do  I do"?  On the continuum of force options he has available, what would have been more acceptable? They are not obeying his verbal commands and they are both physically resistant.  What could he do? Mace them? Draw his weapon? Employ his nightstick? Talk some more? Notice that after he punched her, the 17 year old backed off.  I don't like it, but the results speak for themselves.  As an aside, this event does cause me to ask the question however "what is wrong with these young black women"? I mean, check out the brothers in the video and the cat doing the filming that you can hear talking.  They, like me, have a clear understanding of how to respond to a police officer who is determined to exercise his authority, namely comply and if you ain't the one getting taken down, stay the hell out of the way.  The one brother tries to save homegirl from getting it twisted, holding her, but she breaks free and homie decides he's not following her in. Not one brother attempts to intervene against the officer physically as the girl did, exercising a very commendable level of common sense.  Would that the sistas had profited by their example.

So who's at fault here?  The young ladies are certainly at fault.  I can totally identify with the fact that Ms. Levias first thought upon hearing Officer Walsh intention to give her a jaywalking citation was probably Bulls***. But if she had complied, she would have avoided another mark on her record (she was arrested for kicking an officer previously) and the rest of this fallout.  Her young friend didn't do her any favors by taking the same flight of idiocy with her.  If she had counseled compliance instead of fighting the officer, she would have avoided eating a knuckle sandwhich on tape and criminal charges.  She has subsequently met with the officer and apologized, demonstrating some capacity to think straight and accept some wise counsel.

But the cops are not off the hook here by any stretch. Because on the facts as presented, I don't have anything to indicate that this wasn't an arbitrary exercise of police power that prompted the resistance. This unfortunate incident began with a simple jaywalking citation and escalated to a use of force incident. Minor infractions like jaywalking are merely one of a bevy of violations available to cops to use as justification or pretext to stop or detain a civilian. The Seattle Police Office of Accountability has pointed out the high number of low level police contacts which escalate to incidents like this.

That's not just me suggesting there is a problem here with professionalism of the Seattle Police Force as it relates to officer skills at handling low threat situations or deescalating an interaction with a citizen.  That comes from their own department. You cannot argue to me that best practice police work should result in a use of force episode based on a minor infraction that was not itself an arrestable offense.  Is it a reasonable use of police time and resources to arrest this girl for jaywalking?  Is there a reasonable cost/benefit to be had here? Was the initial infraction merely the pretext for a petty exercise of police power, to which Ms. Levias objected? The public pays for police services, its a reasonable question. Police expect their commands and directives to be obeyed when they are warranted and when they are arbitrary and are prepared to use their coercive power in either case, irrespective of whether they are acting reasonably or not.  This is the same city where police officers tased THREE TIMES an 8 month pregnant black women sitting in her car and accompanied by her minor son for refusing to sign a traffic citation! (BTW, refusing to sign a traffic citation is not an arrestible offense in Seattle. In other words, they had no authority to arrest her for refusing to comply with that directive and oh yeah,  not signing the citation does not obviate the ticket). 

The larger issue implicated here for me is whether any petty exercise of power by police is legitimate and whether any citizen, save those protected by lots of money, political clout or. bias will be safe from arbitrary impositions of police authority. Because I can't recall the last time myself or anybody I know got a ticket for jaywalking.