Bryan Caplan  

Demeanor and Brutality

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A question that came up at the Silver Diner after last night's debate:
What fraction of police brutality could have been avoided if the victims has simply been respectful and submissive vis-a-vis the police?
The question isn't intended to "blame the victim," merely to understand what's going on.

COMMENTS (15 to date)
The Swiss writes:

It strikes me that this is a static question. If people were routinely docile and submissive vis a vis the police, we might see more brutality because people would be easier to brutalize.

mdb writes:

A better question, what fraction of police brutality could be avoided if the police had simply been respectful and calm?

Gabriel rossman writes:

Perhaps it might be useful to distinguish "respectful" vs. "submissive," or more exactly to disentangle the physical and legal aspects of "submissive." For instance, imagine a person who does not flee and makes no threatening gestures, but requests to see a warrant, politely refuses consent to be searched, etc. My hunch is that such a person is much less likely to be hit than somebody who tries to run away, insults the cop, takes a swing at a cop, etc.

Steve S writes:

Whenever I hear stories like people freaking out when asked to see their receipt at Best Buy or WalMart - and the police get involved - I have this same thought as well. It's great that you know the law and you're standing up for that, but have a little perspective.

But on the flip side: I think where it gets tricky is when an officer misinterprets a citizen not obeying their every demand - when they demand something outside their power or jurisdiction - as disrespect. Seems like we need to train the police in the difference between "knowing the law" and "disobeying authority".

Good question though.

asg writes:

I am reminded of Chris Rock's classic bit on this subject:

OneEyedMan writes:

The vast majority. Avoid poking bears and stepping on snakes.

I think Mr. Rossman is wrong. A lot of physical violence is near instinctive, and when an armed and trained cop is put in a situation where they feel threatened (again, even if unjustified), that training can kick-in in a heart beat. On the other hand, violence in response to being annoying by asking for your rights requires conscious violence, which I think is less likely because it is deliberate and less likely to be accepted by peers or authority figures.

John Hall writes:

I live in NYC, but do not know a good diner (I've had pancakes more times at Silver Diner in the past 3 years than I have anywhere in NYC). Anybody have any ideas?

The Swiss writes:

John Hall,

Try the Comfort Diner. There are several locations.

Clark writes:

Isn't one of the innovations in policing the past couple of decades better training for defusing these sorts of situations? I suspect it's a problem since often the very people most apt to have a lot of police intervention are those least "trained" on civility and politeness. i.e. often there are subgroups with more social breakdown and thereby interpersonal problems.

I think though that especially after a long day peoples nerves fray, you have some people less trained, and then frankly there are sometimes subtle incentives for who joins police forces in terms of personality.

Still I notice just in my personal life I get out of most tickets merely by being extremely polite and submissive. I had a friend who didn't do that and always ended up with the maximum for tickets. So it's definitely a feature of how to successfully deal with police.

The issue of "asking for your rights" is that often the police will still get what they want but it'll be more time consuming, annoying, expensive and also much more invasive for you. I may have the right to not have them examine my car, give me a breathalyzer or whatever. But it's generally just worth it to me to freely allow those especially when I know I'm innocent. (I know police still make mistakes and innocent people get charged - but somehow it still seems worth it to me) Also if I do the "how can I help you do your job" answer and then praise them for doing it they typically are much, much nicer about it all.

Gabriel rossman writes:

One Eyed Man,

You misread me -- we're actually pretty much on the same page.

Shane writes:

Good question, I have provoked some annoyance when suggesting something similar regarding public protests. Often following a mass protest here some minor and more radical subgroup will continue the protest in a place chosen to deliberately provoke the police. For example, they might block a street or sit in on a government building. To me it seems obvious that they are looking for a fight, trying hard to put police in a position where conflict is inevitable. Yet there follow complaints about police brutality.

Of course police should be trained to deal with these situations as peacefully as possible, but I think these radical protestors know that their actions will cause violence. I feel they have little ground for outrage once it comes.

Pierre writes:

My direct, personal, experience is: quite a bit of it. I haven't been "brutalized" in any sense of the word, but I was arrested for "contempt of cop." Fair enough. I was very contemptuous.


quadrupole writes:

I would suspect most of it.

The *only* time I've ever had any issue with a cop was when I was 16, pulled over for running a red light.

I'm white. I had a car full of white teenagers (my younger brother and his idiot friends, who at the time where very into early 90s rap music). My brothers idiot friends where making a bunch of stupid low level chatter in the back seat based on what they had heard on their rap songs, my younger brother made a sudden move to get the registration out of the glove compartment, and I found myself looking down the barrel of a gun.

Ever since then, my policy has been to keep my hands on 2 and 10 on the steering wheel, and politely ask the officer if it's OK to reach into my pocket to get my licenses and the glove compartment to get my registration. I don't actually do it out of submission. I do it because I figure as a cop doing a pull over, it's got to be scary not knowing what the guy in the car is going to do, and I want to make him feel as safe as possible. Communication and predictability do that.

PrometheeFeu writes:

I think it is probable that the vast majority of police brutality includes the victim not acting in a submissive manner. I am ashamed to say that I tend to act pretty sheepishly when police officers are around. Why? They have guns. Sometimes they shoot people who don't comply with their orders. Also, I'm white, middle class, don't carry anything illegal and in a few years, I will even be a citizen. The chances of something bad happening to me from an encounter with a police officer are strongly negatively correlated with how sheepish I act. If I was a citizen, I would probably assert my rights more often but right now, the prospect of being deported away from my loved ones and my job don't appeal to me.

Silas Barta writes:


Still I notice just in my personal life I get out of most tickets merely by being extremely polite and submissive.

Confirmed. This has been my experience as well. I avoided two moving violation tickets, a short time apart and in the same county, with exactly this strategy.

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