A phenomenon I have oft noticed is the shock Europeans express upon their first experience of American policing. This is not police brutality, which describes the excess use of force by law enforcement, but what I would term police cruelty. Police cruelty is the harsh, dismissive or cruel nature of interactions between police officers and the public when no force is used. For example, this viral video of an American police officer interacting with a German tourist for a road violation is police cruelty:
Brutality did not occur — nobody was beat, shot or arrested — but cruelty did occur. Upon stopping the suspect the police officer immediately takes an unprofessional, dismissive and quasi-racist tone; “Do you know what the speed limit is here, Germany boy?” The police officer, clearly attempting to intimidate the tourist, follows up with; “Why are you driving in my country?” But — and this is a serious issue — the worst is when the police officer, in his intimidation attempt, says; “Do you know what happens to nice little boys like you who have to go to jail for reckless driving? Ass will be hurting for a month. I suggest you slow down and do 70. Or you will get violated.”
Ass will be hurting for a month?!
You will get violated?!
This law enforcement officer has just communicated to a German tourist that it is normal for people to be arrested for speeding and anally raped while in custody. Anal rape in police custody! This is, if not police brutality, police cruelty.
However, many Americans would say that the German tourist got off lucky. A quick glimpse at the comments on the video confirm this. Why? Because he was not cited. Despite the fact that he was threatened with anal rape the tourist is perceived, by Americans, to be fortunate it was not worse. This is the normalization of police cruelty in the United States. You are lucky if all that happens to you is a form of sexual intimidation.
Most Americans do not own a passport. Of those who do, few have traveled overseas and fewer have lived in a foreign country. As a result, many Americans believe this type of behavior is the norm for policing worldwide. (Hint: it is not.) When I have shown the American version of COPS, or this very YouTube video, to my European colleagues many are in disbelief. Not disbelief that police officers behave so badly. Disbelief that it is even real. They assume that it is a fictional reality-type show, in the case of COPS. Or they assume that it is a parody. Many do not initially realize that American police officers actually behave this way. They are incredulous. I have to convince them that the videos are real and that American law enforcement does behave this way.
I ran across a recent blog, Le Bon Mot, where a young tourist in France had an experience with pickpockets and French law enforcement. Here is what happened, from her article, titled “That Time I Punched A Cop”:
“OH NO! My wallet is gone!”
“OK. You have been pick-pocketed. Come with me. We must get off the train.”
I had no idea what was happening at this point or who this man was and for all I knew he was in on the whole thing. My mom was in disbelief as I got up to follow the man. We went into the walkway between cars and there, on the ground, was my wallet. Everything was thrown on the floor, but with the exception of the cash, it was all there. I reached down to pick it up, but he snapped it away from me.
“I must keep this.”
“Um, no. Why? That’s mine. Give it back, please.”
“It is evidence.”
“Give it back.”
Then I did what any rational person would do…. I lunged after him to get my wallet.
Before I could get to him, a new man rushed up between us, grabbing me to block my arm. I freaked.
Then, in a moment of absolute clarity, I punched him in the chest…. And then I threw him on the ground.
“I’M A COP! I’M A COP!”
I helped him up and apologized in every English and French way you can think of. It finally sunk in that those two weren’t part of the initial pick-pocketing and might actually be who they said they were. My mom was sitting there, wide-eyed at everything that had just transpired. The cops eventually started laughing and explained they were part of a network to catch pickpockets on trains. Mortification doesn’t even begin to cover how we felt, so we behaved like good tourists and got off the train when they said to (with EVERYONE watching).
Long story short, the police did not brutalize her. They did not respond to her with violence, despite the fact that she punched and tackled a French police officer. Instead, they acted like normal human beings. Everyone laughed it off, the pickpockets were eventually caught and no one had their life ruined as a result.
Imagine the United States of America version. While I can’t prove what would have happened, let’s just say I think it safe to assume that our young tourist in France would have had a very different experience.
Here is another viral video of Australian law enforcement handling the uncooperative suspect of a drunk driving accident:
Contrast the professionalism of the law enforcement officer in this situation with the American officer in the previous video. The suspect is largely uncooperative and refusing to comply. He seems to have crashed into a curb or a park. His car is visibly damaged. And he has a bottle or case of Wild Turkey in the vehicle. The police officer uses a bit of humor, remains calm, stays professional and does all in his power to diffuse the situation.
The officer states; “I request you to accompany me to a police station.” This is important, because as the narrator stated: now that the officer knew who the suspect was the suspect was no longer under arrest. The suspect was not required to return to the police station to give an additional sample for analysis. The suspect had every right to get up and walk away. The police officer states to the suspect; “I need you to make a definitive decision.” He has given the suspect multiple opportunities to opt out of returning to the police station for further analysis. Nonetheless, the suspect does comply.
And here is the kicker: the driver, convicted of this drunk driving accident, was fined $600 dollars, sentenced to four months of community service and had his license revoked (his license had previously been revoked for drunk driving as well – he is a multiple offender) for three years. A penalty far less punitive than a first time DUI/DWI offender in the United States.
These are just a few examples to compare and contrast. In the context of law enforcement, the United States has gone too far. The average DUI/DWI cost in the United States costs between five and six thousand USD, a minimum of one year probation or 45 days in jail. This is for a first time offense. In some states, a second DUI/DWI is a felony. Our Australian suspect, instead of paying a fine and moving on with his life, might be sitting in prison. And our tourist in France may have racked up a felony charge for assaulting a police officer. At the very least, it is not a stretch to assume she would have been detained and held overnight.
This is why I warn potential tourists: be careful if you visit the United States of America, or pick a new holiday destination.