For the Love of Wisdom

The logic of iambic half-lines

Police and Moral Authority

What type of moral authority do violent police have?

In May an English Professor was threatened with arrest for not showing her ID when caught jaywalking (or just crossing a closed street, like other people also caught on the police video).

Apparently the police officer was ignorant of the law he enforces, as failure to show ID is not sufficient for arrest in Arizona, where this happened.

The arrest was so violent that a bystander called 911 to report it.

The national news has reported on several people (by my count three women and one elderly man) treated violently or beaten by police for jaywalking in the past few months.

Sometimes commenters on the online stories just say, “well, she broke the law. She gets what is coming to her." My read on this type of comment is: literally whatever might come to her. As an ethicist, it worries me that any of us think justice involves this type of treatment of others.

I’ve asked before what the psychological explanation for anyone’s approval of these types of police tactics might be. The suggestions were helpful.

But now I’m wondering about officers who treat defenseless people like this.

My questions are simple. As a philosopher, I think asking a simple question is often the best thing we can do. The morass of traditional stances, legal statuses, and procedure is what is often “in play” when schools like ASU declare that the arrest violated no policies. The school's commitment to this type of treatment of others is put on full display in their official statment: "ASU authorities have reviewed the circumstances surrounding the arrest and have found no evidence of inappropriate actions by the ASUPD officers involved."

That ASU stands behind this type of regard for other human beings is just at such stark odds with the liberal arts tradition in which they partake, one that emphasizes above all else the role of reason and explanation over violence and blind compliance to authority. But, that’s another set of questions for ASU.

When it comes to the officers who are treating us so violently (those of us they distinguish from other violent people by calling us “sheep” rather than the "wolves" in their training) what do they think is right about it?

It can’t be fear for the jaywalker’s safety. That's implausible for so many reasons, even though that justification was used in this beating of a woman. Is it fear for drivers who might hit a jaywalker? It doesn’t seem that applies in the ASU case.

Is it respect for our laws, as they exist? I doubt it. The ASU officer didn’t know the law. In my experience, that is not uncommon.

Is it disdain for citizens? Do we need to be “herded” like sheep whether we know it or not? This assumes a lot of moral authority on behalf of the “herders.” 

If it is a type of moral authority they think they have it can’t be the same type they get when "taking down" someone who just harmed someone else. The "sheep," or the women recently “taken down” for jaywalking, were not (yet) criminals.

I'd wonder why a moral authority would enforce laws someone else authored. No moral authority thinks laws are always right.

Moral authorities can explain, well, morality. We'd expect police who believe they are our moral authorities to answer questions and to tell us what they take to be right and wrong. Their own lives would be exemplary, if they took themselves to be moral authorities.

Ulimately, I'm worried about any type of moral authority that jettisons common deceny. The explanation and justification for this will be radical; it's not something we are yet familiar with. 

When they take down a jaywalking woman for not complying with their requests, allowing her to ask no questions before being handcufffed and subjected to all that happens when handcuffed or at jail (including possible strip searches), the question I want to ask. The question I want to pose to each of the officers working for ASU is: who do you think you are?  

So, Dear Police Department at ASU, What is your role in relation to the rest of us? What do you think you are doing? For whom? For what? 

Any moral authority would answer, and to our (eventual) satisfaction.

 

 

Jennifer Baker, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of philosophy at the College of Charleston.

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