The Logic of Brute Force

Erik Cameron, a Chicago resident, describes how he was treated by the Chicago PD on his way home from work (boldface mine):

A number of Chicago police officers came around the corner from Rush Street running, weapons drawn. They were yelling and chattering into their radios. They were running at me: I was staring down the muzzle of a handgun, and the officer behind it was screaming: “DROP IT! DROP IT! DROP IT!”

My hands went up. I was holding a half full cup of tea. As the photo below illustrates, North Water is basically a dark alley. There’s at least one weapon pointed at my head, (if the guy holding it isn’t a raving lunatic, he’s doing his best impression of one) which means there are probably a few more I can’t see. Dropping a half full cup of tea onto asphalt from 6.5 feet in the air isn’t quiet.

I won’t soon forget looking down that gun, watching the cup fall from my hand, and wondering if I was about to hear a bang. It’s not every day you’re walking down the street, only to wonder if you’re ready to meet your maker. I grew up in the city. I’ve been scared by plenty of things. I’ve been a victim of crime. I’ve never felt anything quite like that.

He kept the gun pointed at my face and moved in, to about five feet away, during which time I focused on remaining very still, and not soiling my favorite pair of jeans. The other cops moved in too, and relieved me of my bag, searched me for a gun, (spoiler alert: I didn’t have one) and put me in cuffs.

Fortunately — no thanks to CPD — nobody got shot. It eventually took more than 10 individual cops on the scene to determine that I was in fact just minding my own business…

Once they were convinced I wasn’t a “terrorist,” (his word, not mine) the cop who cuffed me said they had a report of an individual with a gun, and that I had been tracked by video surveillance for nearly a half mile before they jumped me.

Then he asked what I was doing on Michigan Avenue, revealing that they didn’t even have the right person: I had walked on Wabash all the way from my office, at Huron. I hadn’t been on Michigan Avenue since lunchtime. He asked where I had been 30 minutes earlier: In my office. Sitting at my desk.

The whole piece is excellent, but what Cameron calls the “logic of brute force” is at the heart of all of this (boldface mine):

This behavior might be illogical and confounding by normal standards, but my theory is that in such cases, normal logic has been preempted in favor of the “logic” of brute force, which consists of a single premise: Any challenge, however small, must be crushed by superior power, no matter how monstrous or irrational the results, before anyone stops to think.

It will be said self-defense is a reasonable application of the logic of brute force; when officers fear for their safety, they should defend themselves. As a platitude, this is true. It ignores, however, the entire point of having a police force in the first place, which is to ensure the safety of citizens. (There’s a reason they’re called “peace officers.”) As cops are often the first to remind us, the social contract requires that they put themselves at risk in the service of public safety. We train cops for the express purpose of having people who can enter dangerous situations and behave rationally. If a hazy tip and some misinterpreted surveillance is all it takes for that to break down, then we need better cops.

…there’s nothing wrong with being unable to behave rationally in the face of mortal fear. We just need cops who can. Don’t take it personally.

Besides, even in this situation, somebody had to be rational in the face of mortal fear. CPD methods just ensured it was the scared-witless citizen, instead of the trained, armed cop. Here’s a quick comparison: The cop thought I maybe-possibly-can’t-rule-it-out had a weapon; I, on the other hand, had a very real gun shoved in my face. The cop got to make the first move, after 15 minutes of electronic tracking; I was daydreaming until ambushed by bellowing aggressors. Apparently it’s reasonable to ask me to keep my composure. Why can’t we ask the same of him, especially after all of that training and oath-taking?

The answer (I suspect) is that the logic of brute force is not entering this situation by way of self defense at all, but by way of rehearsed ideology. I doubt this cop even considered trying to defuse the situation— he had ample chance, and declined. In the seconds leading up, I clearly couldn’t have escalated a situation I didn’t know was unfolding. He decided to come out yelling and waving a gun long before he saw me on Rush Street. This is a matter of policy, not split-second reaction.

As a microcosm, consider what happened to the [damaged] box shown here. It had the misfortune of being in my bag when the cops got a hold of it. I understand that because the product depicted on the box has knobs and lights, it will be regarded with suspicion by post-9/11 American law enforcement. (I informed the cops that it was audio equipment, apparently just in time.)

My question is, regardless of what the cop suspected, why did he think it was a good idea to start ripping the box open like a puppy with a newspaper? For just about any item of interest it could have contained— stolen property, valuable information, or, naturally, a bomb — ripping the box to shreds right there in the street seems like the dumbest strategy imaginable.

And yet that’s exactly the one he went with. Any sensible strategy for opening this box was preempted in its favor. I doubt he worried about corrupting evidence or setting off a bomb, despite how obvious those concerns might seem in hindsight. There was just maybe something (read: someone) bad in that bag (alley), and by gum, it (he/she) was going to bend to his will.

Cameron makes a key point: this is not merely a case of risk-aversion. It is symptomatic of an ideology, a belief system in the righteous dominance of internal security forces over other citizens. Oddly enough, after sufficient provocation, there is still enough life left in this republic to occasionally demand otherwise. When the underlying ideology at work is taken into account, it makes one wonder who is really the defender of law and order.

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