Culture and the Perception of Violence.
Is it acceptable to raise your voice in public? Is a police officer’s perception of a situation enough to warrant unnecessary physical contact or violence? These are a couple of the questions that I had to wrestle with at the Public Defender’s Office while helping investigate a case.
According to the police report, the incident began on a Saturday night around bar time when a couple of police officers had set up their “safety initiative” at the corner of University Ave. and Frances Street. This is right outside of Wando’s Bar. The report said that one of the officers observed a white male walking backwards and yelling obscenities at the people that he was looking at. From the officers’ perspective it seemed as if the man was getting increasingly more angry and was about to fight some of the people. One of the officers observed Jason (a pseudonym) flash a gang sign at another man walking by. What happened next was quick and unexpected, and led to a brief, yet serious, physical altercation. The police officer that was observing Jason ran over to him, notified him that he was a police officer, and when the man didn’t stop being an aggressor, the policeman grabbed him and slammed him on the ground. The man then got on top of the officer and began to hit him in the face. Meanwhile, the other policeman was being grabbed by this man’s girlfriend from behind by his utility belt, and was forced to push her on the ground. The police officers continued to struggle with Jason and the crowd around them became more and more agitated. Jason’s girlfriend got up from the ground and again tried to pull the assisting officer off of Jason. He was then forced to use his night stick to give her a jab in the stomach. The police wound up directly pepper spraying one of Jason’s friends, and blanketing the entire crowd with pepper spray. They also arrested both Jason and his girlfriend. The aftermath of this event was two battered and bruised individuals, and two cops who did not show much signs of a struggle outside of a swollen ear.
After hearing these facts from the police report it seemed pretty clear that the man deserved for this to happen. But a week later I had a talk with my supervisor, who told me that he had spoken with some of the witnesses of this incident that were friends of the defendant, and had been walking with him at the time when the fight broke out that night. Interestingly, they all had given similar accounts of what had happened that night that did not correspond to the police reports.
All of the witnesses said that Jason had been walking backwards and talking to them, and not other people, and was explaining that some guys had tried to start a fight with his girlfriend. Of course, he wasn’t happy about that fact, but wasn’t intending on going to fight anyone and was just strongly voicing his emotions to them. While the defendant was walking backwards, one of the policemen came running over and grabbed him from behind and slammed him on the ground. The defendant, drunk and not knowing what was going on, began to struggle and try to punch the police officer while he was being forced on the ground. From the witness perspective, things escalated from there as the defendants’ girlfriend tried to step in and help by dragging the policemen off of her boyfriend, only to also get beaten up. All of Jason’s friends who were witnesses reported that the police officer that tackled Jason did not identify himself before doing so, and that Jason was blindsided. One of Jason’s friends tried to tell the policemen that Jason had had enough and that he was not resisting, but he was subsequently pepper sprayed. Travis looked like he had just gone two rounds with a professional MMA fighter. One of the police officers suffered a swollen ear.
After hearing these facts and drawing my own conclusions from them, I completely switched my stance and belief of what had happened that night. What makes the police so credible? I conceived that it was easy for a misjudgment on their part to unfold into the type of situation that occurred that night. If it did, I would believe that police officers are easily in a position to cover up their wrongdoings rather than admit to them. It seemed to me that this was the underlying story to this particular event.
I attended Jason’s trial, where police testimony was insufficient to convict him of a felony. I was happy to see that the justice system had worked and that lack of supportive evidence on behalf of the state and the presence of evidence by the defense had led to a man receiving a misdemeanor rather than a felony, for a charge that could so easily have sent him to prison for a significant amount of time
This case and the opposing perspectives surrounding it really allowed me to think deeper into the underlying reasons why this altercation happened in the first place. Even after hearing one of the police officer’s testimonies at Jason’s trial, it was clear to me that they were not sure that Jason was going to fight, but it simply looked as if he was. This was hard for me to come to terms with. There was no doubt in my mind that the officers had meant to do well that night. They perceived something bad happening, and were in a position to prevent a situation from getting out of hand. What is baffling is that instead of preventing a fight from happening, they initiated one, and caused an unnecessary commotion, injuries, and discomfort to many people. Jason was indeed causing a scene, raising his voice, flashing gang signs, and walking backwards, but what he wasn’t hurting anyone. From the accounts of himself and the witnesses, he also wasn’t intending on doing so. It is understandable that police officers see a lot of these types of behaviors on a regular basis, and that often they do lead to fights and disturbances. What is not acceptable is that the police officers resorted to physical violence instead of first trying to talk to Jason and assess the situation. That would be perfectly understandable and warranted. Instead, they tackled him and started a huge fight, which was what they were trying to prevent in the first place.
It was clear to me that differences in culture and what is perceived as violent or deviant behavior can have harsh outcomes. The most important takeaway that I had from Jason’s case is that we all communicate and express our feelings in different ways, and these can be perceived by others to have completely different meanings than what we intend or even expect them to. Although police officers are accustomed to acting on hunches and their initial perceptions, it would benefit them and other people if they make sure to fully digest each situation that they are in, rather than to act off of foreseeable outcomes that are built off of stereotypes. Communication is vital, because a situation isn’t always as it seems. Jason’s case and trial taught me that, and gave me a valuable lesson that I will not forget as I continue to work with the criminal justice system.