Is it our job to de-escalate the police?

Knowing how to de-escalate a situation can save your life.

Three years ago, I wrote about a woman held at gunpoint while she picked up a car she had already purchased and registered. I reprint it below.

Wow! Nothing has changed, except maybe your awareness.

Pop quiz 1: There is a person using a screwdriver to change the license plates on a car. From a distance, the person looks like an African American teenager, wearing casual clothes. What do you do?

  1. Pull out your gun. You know how to scare kids out of crime.
  2. Start to chat up the would-be thief. He’ll run away.
  3. Call the police.
  4. Call the owner of the car (if you know the person).
  5. Find someone else to help you figure out what to do.
  6. Walk on. This is none of your business.

How you react to a potential crime in progress speaks volumes about your perception of your safety in this society.

Pop quiz 2: You are picking up a used car that you purchased from a person (not a dealer.) As you are putting the new plates on, someone points a gun at you. You think:

  1. I have the registration and bill of sale in my bag; everything will be clarified in a minute.
  2. I am about to die! No, I just need to stay calm until the police come.
  3. I am about to die! I need to stay calm in front of the police, too. If I scare them, they’ll shoot me.
  4. My life is over. I am about to be a hashtag, whatever I do.

How you react to threats of violence and the ability of police to provide safety speaks volumes about your perception of your safety in this society.

Switching license plates while Black

First published July 2017.

Here’s what happened to Tonya Jameson, a middle-class, professional woman who bought a used SUV. Ms. Jameson is Black.

Tonya JamesonShe negotiated and purchased a used car and arranged to pick it up from the former owner’s driveway. While changing the plates, an off-duty cop (and the son-in-law of the former owner) pointed a gun at her, then called the police.

The off-duty officer did not look at the bill of sale. The patrolman who arrived in uniform looked at the paperwork, but did not release her until there was confirmation from the former owner’s daughter.

Whose responsibility to de-escalate the police?

Here’s Ms. Jameson’s analysis of the internal affairs investigation that followed the incident:

  • The questions in an internal affairs investigations are set up to protect the officers.
  • Police see “de-escalation” as the goal of calming civilians. They do not see it as a need to calm themselves.
  • As a Black woman, Ms. Jameson believes her life depended on her remaining calm. The officers on the scene were not calm. They are not held responsible for being calm.
  • She feels compelled to get the word out that civilians must learn de-escalation techniques. They need to remain calm and know how to calm the police. Their lives depend on it.

That July, there was a Google Doc I saw a few times. [it’s gone now] It was about abolishing policing in America. When I first read it, I thought, “Wow, that’s radical.” The more I sat with it, however, the more it made sense to me.

But I have privilege as a basically white person. I have privilege as a homeowner, as someone who knows my elected officials (and they know me), as someone who is known in the community. Is that where my objections come from?

Where do you come down on this? Are you angry enough to say it is time to abandon our policing system?

If you are interested in my Bystander Intervention classes.  Please join my mailing list. 

2020 musings:

I see the misconduct here as consisting of these things.

The son-in-law:

  1. An off-duty policeman was brandishing a gun.
  2. After a disproportionate show of force, he held a woman at gunpoint until the police came.
  3. He did not look at the paperwork that would prove he jumped to the wrong conclusion.

The police:

  1. Did not accept the documents. The police could have double-checked on their police computer (in most police cars for traffic stops).
  2. Even with the documents, they waited for verbal verification from the former owner. The former owner doesn’t see the paperwork, or the buyer. But, her word is more worthy than the paperwork itself. The word of the Black woman, with paperwork to verify it, is not good enough.  Get it? Really insulting!

Yet after an investigation, none of the actions of the policemen was considered wrong. Not in 2017. And probably not in 2020.

Is it our job to de-escalate the police, or is it their job to calm themselves?


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