Tweet of the Week, Vol. 16 — A scary encounter with law enforcement

[Hear the audio]

Last week, the Ward 8 blogger Nikki Peele, had an encounter with the U.S. Capitol Police that is still bothering her. She writes the blog Congress Heights on the Rise, and she told me that the only reason she hasn’t written about the encounter herself is that what happened is still upsetting and she’s planning to file a complaint with the U.S. Capitol Police this week.

The audio she recorded from the back seat of the car is above. As she describes it, she and her four colleagues were on the way to lunch, when they were pulled over at 2nd at C Streets SE.  During the incident, which USCP confirmed did occur, we hear the driver interacting with an officer on the recording.

According to Peele, the driver was never told why. It was after a couple minutes of what the blogger described as intimidating and humiliating behavior, she decided to start recording. What you hear is the end of the exchange, which Peele captured with her iPhone.

Officer: “You seem pretty intelligent okay. You wouldn’t like it if people played games on you. That’s expired.”

Driver: “Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t have the new one on me, I’ve got it though…”

Officer: “I understand…that’s a violation also too, so I got two violations on you right now. See what happens when you get in a conversation with your buddies, and not paying attention to what you’re doing?”

Driver: “I must not have been paying attention. I’m sorry.”

Officer: “Okay, it didn’t hurt to be honest, did it? Okay, we don’t play games with that. I figure you’re pretty smart. It’s a $50 fine and two points on your license. How would you like that?”

Driver: “Not very much.”

Officer: “Now, you’re talking to me, now. Now you’re talking to me, okay? See how easy things pile up? Pay attention. [Inaudible] They’re in there laughing,” he says, referring to the other passengers. At which, point they speak up, pointing out that’s not the case, as evidence by the audio.

After more voices get in on the conversation, the driver simply says, “Thank you, officer.” Nobody walked away with any infractions. And while many people might consider this a blessing in disguise, the tone of the officer’s voice makes it clear that his goal was to intimidate and wield his perceived power in as condescending a manner as possible.

Why is this important? Because as we watch Ferguson, MO, turn into a warzone, the reality of what life as an ordinary citizen dealing with a police officer in ordinary circumstances is often overlooked. I talked about this last week regarding Michael Brown’s death outside of St. Louis on WTOP 103.5 FM. Almost immediately, I got a letter from a man claiming to be a law enforcement official.

His words made it clear that he believed his status as an officer made his life more valuable than that of a perceived criminal. “When we are out here, Clinton, we deal with the unknown and when we fight it could be for our lives,” he wrote, implying that it’s not the exact same deal for regular citizens as well. And while this particular conversation that Peele captured partially didn’t escalate to anything close to that of Michael Brown’s situation, the level of respect in that conversation is clear. According to spokesperson Lt. Kimberly Schneider, the U.S. Capitol Police is currently investigating the matter.

What’s occurred to me while watching the events in Missouri is that many people who tacitly trust law enforcement are  buying into a different social contract than the rest of us. It’s a view illustrated in a recent op-ed in The Washington Post’s PostEverything blog. There, Sunil Dutta, described as “a professor of homeland security at Colorado Tech University, has been an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department for 17 years,” makes it clear.  Just look at the headline.

“I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me,”  he wrote. He goes on saying that cops deserve absolute power, something that both law enforcement officials and some citizens both have been socialized to believe. “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,” he writes. “Working the street, I can’t even count how many times I withstood curses, screaming tantrums, aggressive and menacing encroachments on my safety zone, and outright challenges to my authority.”

Victim blaming and authoritarian pedagogy, all in one package.

Sometimes I wonder what the law enforcement world would be like if everyone were required to do it for some period of time, sort of like countries with mandatory military service. Because at the end of the day, the definition of  brutality should come from the victim, not the aggressor.

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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