The Arrest

I.  Meaning

Just what is an arrest, anyway?  Well, a court that will hear a criminal trial usually insists on having personal control of the defendant.  Taking someone into custody is the traditional way of achieving this:  besides assuring the defendant’s availability, it gives unmistakable notice to anyone present that an action is being commenced.

There are other methods of compelling attendance.  The familiar traffic citation is one (possibly just an arrest and immediate release on “own recognizance”).  For some kinds of action a summons may be served by an officer, or possibly even just sent through the mail.  Physical arrest though has the appealing advantage of interrupting undesirable behavior:  a drunk driver can be taken off the road, for instance.  Much less frequently, an arrest may secure the availability of a material witness, or the safety of someone who is under threat.

From watching TV, either crime dramas or the evening news, you might think that arrest is just the kickoff event for punishment adminstered by the police. Public figures have even been heard to support the idea that suspects should be roughed up a bit. This notion conflicts, however, with the way that our justice system is set up to work.  The arresting officer is not allowed to decide whom to punish, or how — that’s the job of the court.  And yet, in the movies or on the news, we see officers inflicting pain or even death, as though it were routine.

I propose a little thought experiment, to help clarify the role of the police in law enforcement.  Call to mind any of those notorious officer-involved killings:  the beating, choking or shooting of an unarmed suspect, possibly someone who is already restrained — I’ll provide an example  below.  Now imagine that the person doing the beating, choking or shooting is not a uniformed officer, but one of your neighbors.

The picture of a random bystander “taking the law into his own hands” should fill us with outrage.  And yet, the authority of a law enforcement officer to use lethal force has the same basis as that of any member of the public: the right of self-defense, or else defense of others.  Even in those states that allow shooting at a fleeing felon, or presume that an officer’s decisions are correct, the basic justification is still the fear of injury or loss of life.  Now, our officers are expected to wade right in — instead of high-tailing it like our neighbors — but once a subject is restrained, or subdued, or cooperating (or, honestly, just running away), reasonable fear dissipates and additional force is purely recreational.  If a cab driver can’t be beating this unarmed person, neither should the cops be. And yet cell-phone video seldom seems to show the fear that will later be used for justification.  How does anyone ever think this is okay?

Who among us has not secretly yearned to see an evil-doer get smacked around?  It’s easy to imagine why an arresting officer might feel like expressing anger toward a suspect — for the underlying offense itself, or for combative behavior during the arrest; or, as is becoming apparent to more and more of us, just for who the suspect is.  At any rate, somewhere along the line, a person who might have been thought to belong to that public that the officer has sworn to protect and serve, has come to be seen as disposable.   The result of watching this over and over is that people who once had trouble identifying with the victims of police violence are now no longer able to side with the officers.

The Black Lives Matter movement and the recent deaths of George Floyd and others have brought to the attention of the American people more forcefully than ever the race-based differences in policing.  That car with the defective brake light:  what if the officer chose to follow it just because its occupants looked like they needed “extra” policing?  Or because the municipality had a deliberate policy of extorting bail money from one group of its citizens?  On the chance that a way could be found to interfere with their voting rights?  Just to show who’s boss?  Brutality by the police is unjust no matter why it happens, but the reason that it usually happens is a national disgrace.  Even a racist can see that this stuff is just plain wrong.

II.  A Demand for Change

Here in Seattle, in the wake of worldwide protests over racism and police violence, crowds of people have taken over an area of several city blocks, east of downtown, including a police precinct building.  These actions have been portrayed as the work of dangerous radicals and outside agitators, but that’s not really true, and they have the approval of tens of thousands of ordinary people.  Polls show that more people here support the demonstrators than want them removed.  A majority of those interviewed would like to see half of the police budget diverted to social programs.  You can call it lawlessness, but in fact what our citizens are trying to do is create justice where it was lacking before.

Calls for defunding our police department sounded shocking at first.   Policing in Seattle is, naturally, downright progressive compared to some other cities; but in this age, the “not as bad as those other guys” defense doesn’t work any more.  Policing everywhere has its origins in a system that was meant not just to protect some people, but to make sure that others knew their place.  An increasing number of us are unsatisfied with being complicit in that process.

We don’t expect to do without a police department altogether, but what we can hope to do is build one from the ground up, one that excludes people who think that color of their skin, or the color of their uniform, makes them superior to other people.  We also hope to do away with legal provisions that keep officers from being held accountable for their actions, to reverse the militarization that encourages escalation, and to ban practices that endanger people unnecessarily, including the use of chemicals whose effects cannot be confined.  An attempt to prohibit choke holds was initially met with an argument from the police union that such a change in procedure would have to be bargained. Americans have created a class of people who appear to be themselves above the law, who train themselves to fear those they protect, and to despise many of them.  But our citizens demand to be able to write the job description themselves, one where the very first priority is to avoid needless injury.

III.  A Story

On August 30, 2010, John T. Williams was crossing a street near downtown Seattle.  He was 50 years old, somewhat hard of hearing, and a noted woodcarver from a tribe that gives a name to several places in the Northwest.  He was carrying a piece of wood and a pocket knife with a single 3-inch blade, which some witnesses say was closed.

Officer Ian Birk saw Williams from his patrol car, and exited with his gun drawn.  In the space of seven seconds, Birk said the word “Hey!” three times, and the phrase “Put the knife down” three times.  At the end of those seven seconds, he shot Williams four times in his right side.  These sounds were captured by the dashboard camera in the officer’s patrol car.

Officer Birk told the Firearms Review Board that he had no choice but to shoot because Williams was only 10 feet away and could have attacked.  The Board noted that Birk’s distance from Williams was of his own choosing, and held that the shooting was not justified.  Birk was not fired, but resigned from the department; about the same time the prosecutor’s office declined to file charges, citing the law protecting peace officers unless they act “with malice,” a subjective factor that is, as a practical matter, impossible to prove.

 — Scott McKee  June 22, 2020