Former Baltimore police officer Peter Moskos used a word in an op-ed for The Post on the complexities of traffic stops for police that I have been looking for since we started drowning in the flood of videos showing confrontations between African-Americans and law enforcement. “[N]obody should die because police officers are more interested in absolute dominance than professional, moral and tactical discretion,” Moskos wrote.
Discretion is the word that had escaped me. And it is a dearth of it —for all to see — that has fueled the “Black Lives Matter” movement and galvanized anyone else horrified by how little it takes to claim a black life. Officers armed with discretion know how to deescalate situations when necessary. They understand the breadth of their legal and lethal power. And they know how and when to use both.
Clearly, University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing didn’t use discretion. He pulled over Samuel Dubose on July 19 because of a missing front license plate. It ended with Dubose being shot in the head. Then Tensing lied about the events leading up to the shooting. The video recorded by Tensing’s body camera exposed the truth. As a result, Tensing was indicted for murder and immediately fired from the university police force.
“When you all see this video,” said Joe Deters, the Hamilton County prosecutor, during a no-nonsense press conference Wednesday, “it’s just senseless. It is. Didn’t have to happen.” He also pointed out, “This office has probably reviewed upwards of a hundred police shootings and this is the first time that we’ve thought this is without question a murder.” And Deters later added this. “[Tensing] wasn’t dealing with someone who was wanted for murder,” the prosecutor said with refreshing honesty. “He was dealing with someone who didn’t have a front license plate. I mean this is in the vernacular a pretty chicken crap stop, all right?”
Discretion was absent when Texas state trooper Brian Encinia pulled over Sandra Bland on July 10 in Waller County, Tx. She failed to signal a lane change. Encinia’s dashcam video revealed that Bland told him she did so to get out of his way. The disturbing footage also shows that her refusal to put out a cigarette she was smoking in her own car didn’t sit well with the officer. And when Bland refused to get out of her car, Encinia tried to pull her out, removed his Taser and then threatened “I will light you up” if she resisted. That Bland unleashed a flurry of invective at the cop after getting out of her car is immaterial. She shouldn’t have been stopped in the first place.
Bland ultimately was arrested. Three days later she was found dead in her jail cell with a plastic trash liner around her neck. “Self-inflicted asphyxiation” was how the sheriff’s office put it. Encinia has been placed on administrative duty by the Texas Department of Public Safety because of “violations of procedures regarding traffic stops and the department’s courtesy policy.” That’s putting it mildly.
I completely understand neither Dubose nor Bland wanting to get out of their cars. African Americans know horrible things can happen when they do. It is one of those rules right up there with keeping both hands visible and on the wheel. And even that is not enough to safeguard your life. That’s because the discretion we hope and believe police officers are trained to use is too often clouded by subconscious bias, outright prejudice or just plain hubris.
Moskos, now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, had his own tense traffic stop in East Baltimore in 2000. He pulled over a black woman who had been driving without her headlights on. She thought she was a victim of “driving while black.” By his own recounting, the escalating encounter could have gone any number of ways, but it didn’t. In court, the judge ruled in his favor.
Honestly, I had little sympathy for this woman’s mistaken sense of moral justice. But I had empathy for her as a human being. And other things being equal, I’d prefer not to wrestle and handcuff a middle-aged woman for a minor traffic violation, no matter the legal justification. I could win tactically but not morally.
…Little about policing is ideal. But that’s why we have police officers, to handle non-ideal situations. These often involve people who are lost, mentally ill, criminals or victims. And, like Sandra Bland, nobody should die because police officers are more interested in absolute dominance than professional, moral and tactical discretion. Peaceful resolution isn’t just the right thing to do — it’s the very purpose of policing.
Moskos’s “purpose of policing,” his mix of discretion and morality, is what I wish more police officers used. Without question, the vast majority do. But we cannot appreciate that fact because we have watched too many men in blue in different jurisdictions around the country fail to do so.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj