It must be a terrible burden knowing that you might have to make a quick decision about whether to yell at someone, shock them, or shoot them dead. That is the weight inherent in the job of a police officer.
Nonetheless, we appropriately expect cops to maintain a peacekeeping mentality – to remain calm, patient and controlled even in life-or-death situations. Unfortunately, patient and nonaggressive policing will be rare unless we train officers to overcome the rules of what I call cop macho.
While recognizing that machismo has special meaning in Latina/o culture, I use the term to describe a gendered, aggressive outlook that is at the heart of our current policing problems. Police officers, including women, are often particularly masculine and the culture of police departments promotes masculine responses.
Those masculine responses can prove deadly. Outrage over police slayings of unarmed black civilians – from Chicago to Baltimore to New York to Ferguson and beyond – has provoked a national debate on what should be done about the use of deadly force by law enforcement. In Ferguson earlier this week, city officials and the US Department of Justice have worked out a preliminary agreement to overhaul the city’s police department, which would include new training for police officers. While the debate over police abuses has focused on race, I argue we need to consider how the desire to act in ways society deems manly has influenced policing.
The masculine imperative of demanding respect
One imperative of masculinity is that you may not allow another person to show you disrespect. As I have demonstrated in my research, police officers sometimes punish disrespect because they believe “a challenge to their respect is a challenge to their manhood.” For many police officers, disrespect requires an escalation in force.
Such escalation is commonly known as “contempt of cop.” Being found in contempt of court is a punishment for disobeying a judge. “Contempt of cop” occurs when an officer punishes you for failing to comply with her request.
Sometimes the punishment takes the form of being charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest or a similarly amorphous crime simply for verbally standing up for your rights. Sometimes it takes the form of physical force. Two widely discussed incidents involving unarmed black civilians demonstrate this concept.
Officer to Sandra Bland: ‘I will light you up.’
In the July 2015 Sandra Bland case, the dashcam video records white male police officer Brian Encinia telling Bland, a black female, that he pulled her over because she “failed to signal the lane change.” When Bland declares that Encinia was tailing her, sped up toward her, then pulled her over for changing lanes to get out of his way, Encinia does not deny that description. Seemingly because Bland refuses to put out her cigarette, Encinia orders her out of the car at taserpoint, shouting, “I will light you up!” Encinia later slams Bland’s head into the ground. Three days later, Bland is found hanging dead in a jail cell.
We do not know whether a police officer physically killed Sandra Bland, but we do know that she would not be dead but for Officer Encinia’s strange decision to arrest her following a trivial traffic violation. That decision is not so surprising, however, when the encounter is viewed as an example of cop machismo. When Bland disrespected Encinia, he punished her for “contempt of cop.”
In the very same city of Prairie View, Texas, white police officer Michael Kelley tasered City Councilor Jonathan Miller, a young black male, for refusing to comply with another unnecessary order. In October 2015, Miller exits his apartment when police officer Penny Goodie, a black female, is asking black men who had been visiting him what they are up to. Officer Kelley arrives and, despite being told there is no crime afoot, orders Miller to his knees for questioning the police. Very quickly, Kelley asks Miller, “Do you always start problems?”
When the obviously unarmed, still kneeling Miller is slow putting his hands behind his back, Kelley tases him, with the approval of officer Goodie. The police department detains Miller for allegedly “interfering with police” and “resisting arrest.” Those charges seemed to punish Miller for his disrespect.
‘Contempt of cop’ is not solely about race
One might claim that “contempt of cop” cases are primarily about race, but I believe they are at least as much about gender. Officer Kelley seems to have been upset that Miller challenged him by asserting his rights. The fact that officer Goodie and police chief Larry Johnson, who is also black, supported the tasing suggests something more than race was at play.
Likewise, Encinia became incensed when Bland refused to cooperate with his gratuitous orders. In both cases, refusing to comply with officers’ orders pricked their egos and resulted in physical abuse. In both cases, it seems that a well trained officer could have deescalated the situation.
Two major proposals commonly suggested to address police abuse are problematic. The emerging procedural fairness methodology of policing, which emphasizes real-time explanations to civilians of why police are taking particular actions, seems to be a superficial change that is consistent with present, race-based targeting of suspects. The push to have police officers wear body cameras is a positive development but is likely to have less value over time as police officer criminal defense attorneys learn to discredit even the most powerful videos, as was done in the unsuccessful first Rodney King trial.
Procedural fairness and body cameras do not reach the root causes of police abuse. If we are serious about reducing unnecessary police violence, we need to acknowledge the gendered aspects of police misuse of power.
The best method I have found for reducing cop macho is deescalation training. For instance, a method called “verbal judo” teaches techniques for verbally deflecting hostility and verbally manipulating civilians into compliance. That approach would allow police officers to deemphasize the masculine preoccupation with disrespect and play the peacekeeping role we admire them for.
I concede that many situations fall into a gray area where civilian disrespect seemingly conveys an actual physical threat. Consequently, an awareness of the way cop macho leads to “contempt of cop” punishments will not prevent all police uses of force. Training machismo out of police officers’ habits would be worth the effort, though, because it would allow the deescalation of many potential police-civilian conflicts.
Editor’s note: The language in the section about Sandra Bland has been corrected to make clear that she was forced out of her car at “taserpoint” not “gunpoint.”