Police: “You’re under arrest. Put your hands behind your back!”
Suspect: “Don’t touch me! I didn’t do anything!”
Police: “Oh, you didn’t? Sorry about that. My mistake. Off you go.”
That was a hypothetical conversation that has never occurred.
Do we really want to live in a society where individuals get to choose whether or not they feel like complying with the police at any given time?
In the mid-1960’s, The Bobby Fuller Four fought the law, and the law won. Several years later, John Cougar Mellencamp reminded us that when he fights authority, authority always wins. And the same is true for nearly every American who tried to fight the law before, after and in-between.
When authorities confront an individual, either to place them under arrest, ask them to vacate an area or, whatever the situation may be, and the individual refuses to comply, there can be only two possible outcomes. The authorities can either say, “Okay, you win. Sorry to bother you. Carry on and have a nice day”. Or, they can physically force the individual to comply. And the former never, ever happens.
By now, all of America is familiar with the story of David Dao, the United Airlines passenger who police officers dragged off a flight from Chicago to Louisville this past Sunday after he refused to surrender his seat to members of a flight crew.
After overbooking a flight, United asked for volunteers to give up their seats to make room for crew members in exchange for $1,000. When no one volunteered, United randomly selected several passengers to leave the plane, including Dao. When he refused, he was forcibly removed from the flight by officers working for the Chicago Department of Aviation. Video of the incident ignited a social media frenzy with an overwhelming majority lending their support to Mr. Dao and condemning the airline and police.
Whether United Airlines, the Chicago Aviation Police officers or David Dao handled the situation properly is open for debate. What is not open for debate is that once a person refuses to comply with police, physical altercation, perhaps resulting in bodily injury is inevitable.
Nearly every incident that sparks national outrage, accusations of police brutality, protests, riots and the creation of organized groups like Black Lives Matter has one thing in common - someone initially refused to comply with the orders of law enforcement.
Mr. Dao may have been completely justified in his outrage. The police response may have been completely inappropriate. But we do not have the luxury of deciding that we do not wish to comply with orders from law enforcement, even if we are completely in the right. And the police do not have the luxury of neglecting to enforce their own orders because someone emphatically expresses their desire to be left alone. Your innocence, mistreatment, inconvenience or potential police misconduct is something to be dealt with at a later time. The subsequent legal process can vindicate the victim and punish the wrongdoers. But during the initial confrontation, you must comply. And if you choose to go a different route, you will lose every single time, at least for the moment.
Sometimes, the aesthetics of a police encounter caught on video do not shine the best light on law enforcement. There is the perception that excessive, perhaps completely unwarranted force was deployed. The proper handling of any physical encounter involving the police is subjective. And video doesn’t always tell the whole story.
Protecting citizens from unwarranted abuses by the state is one of the cornerstones of a free society. It is critical that we hold law enforcement accountable for any misconduct and demand the most fair and humane treatment from the police and the justice system. But before we rush to condemn the police every time they use what some perceive to be excessive force, we must ask ourselves what alternatives did they have? If they ask you to do something and you refuse, they will then tell you to do it. If you still refuse, they must make you do it by force or we cease to be a nation of laws.
Mr. Dao has won in the court of public opinion regarding his experience with United Airlines. There is a good chance that he will win in a court of law. There is also a good chance that some of the officers involved will be the ultimate losers in this ordeal. But in the brief few moments following the request for him to vacate his seat on the airplane, there was a zero percent chance that David Dao would come out the victor.