“The police are to the government as the edge is to the knife,” insists sociologist David Bayley, who apparently couldn’t explain why the typical tax-feeder isn’t the sharpest blade in the cutlery drawer.
One suitable example is the specimen who ruined what was an otherwise pleasant drive to northern Idaho last Friday night (September 18) — a fellow whose finely honed sense of unearned privilege coexisted with an intellect whose acuity was roughly the same as that of a rusty butter knife.
I was part of a small group traveling to the tiny but beautiful village of Potlatch, where I was to give the keynote address at the Liberty Roundup, a forum featuring candidates for state and congressional offices.
My friend Scott Watson was behind the wheel, my wife Korrin and our seven-month-old son in the backseat. We had just passed through Lapwai when we caught the dreaded sight of running lights in our rear-view mirror.
Scott pulled to the side of the road onto a shoulder that proved too narrow to accommodate the donut-burner as he went through the familiar shakedown ritual. Thus instead of approaching the driver-side window, the officer — an officer of the Nez Perce Tribal Police — tapped insistently on the window next to me.
Yeah, I’ll bet that this is going to go really well, I thought grimly to myself as I rolled down the window.
“What’s your hurry?” began the officer, reciting directly from the big book of police clichs in a voice heavy with affected heartiness.
“I’m not in a hurry,” Scott said in a composed but slightly annoyed voice, reflecting his commendable dislike of being patronized.
“Well, I have you going 72 in a 55,” the officer continued in the same contrived tone. (This was untrue; we were in a 65 MPH zone, as the GPS on Scott’s dashboard demonstrated.) He then asked where we were headed, then paused while Scott busied himself procuring the required documents. The officer then cast a glance around the interior.
“Oh, and I’ll need to see ID for the passengers as well,” he said casually.
Here we go, I thought.
“Why is that necessary?” I inquired in a level, formal tone.
“Because I told you so,” the officer said with a slight edge to his voice, as if that settled the matter.
“I’m going to need a better reason than that,” I explained in the same tone I had previously used.
During the pause that followed, I saw the officer’s lips compress in frustration and color begin to flood the part of his face that was visible.
“The Idaho State Code requires that citizens present identification when ordered to by a law enforcement officer!” he hissed. “If you’d like, I’ll bring the Code book and show you!”
“Yes, that would be nice,” I said blithely, handing him Korrin’s driver’s license and my official state ID card (but not my license).
The officer (who made a point of keeping his badge, and thus his own identification, out of view) collected the paperwork.
“You just helped your friend get a ticket,” he grunted in my direction as he turned toward his vehicle.
A few minutes later the officer’s voice was heard behind Scott’s car:
“Mr. Watson, would you step out of your vehicle? I want to speak with you for a minute.”
Scott — an exceptionally level-headed fellow — shook his head and let out an exasperated sigh as he exited the car.
“What is he doing with Scott?” Korrin asked me.
“He’s back there playing some kind of alpha-male game,” I replied, predicting that he’d find some way to do Scott a “favor” in expectation of Scott’s submissive gratitude.
To Scott’s considerable credit, he remained utterly stolid in the face of the armed stranger’s posturing. When he came back to the car, he was even more disgusted than he had been when he left — even though he brought the welcome news that he was not getting a ticket. As he handed our ID cards back to Korrin and me, Scott related the conversation to us.
“The first thing he asked me was, ‘How do you know William Grigg?’” Scott reported. “I told him, ‘Will is a friend of mine.’ Then he said, ‘Well, you tell him that next time he encounters law enforcement, he’d better cool it!’ Then he said that I wasn’t going to get a ticket because I had been ‘cooperative,’ but warned that there were two state troopers between here and Lewiston and that they’d stop me if I went as much as three miles over the speed limit, so I’d better be careful.”
Of course, the officer lied when he promised to show me the section of the Idaho State Code supposedly requiring passengers to produce identification, as I expected him to.
I didn’t press the matter as forcefully as I could have because, after all, I wasn’t the driver; I was willing to push back hard enough to make a point, but didn’t want to cause further trouble for Scott.
The officer also lied when he said that his demand was backed by statutory authority. There is no section of the Idaho State Code that authorizes law enforcement to demand identification from a passenger in a vehicle, or the typical citizen on the street.
“A peace officer can require a person to display ID in a bar, or from someone who is driving a motor vehicle,” explained Sgt. Clarence Costner of the Payette County Sheriff’s Office in reply to my inquiry. “Officers can also check ID when there is probable cause of some kind that leads to an investigation of a crime — for instance, there’s been a burglary in a neighborhood, and someone might fit a suspect description. And of course, they can check ID on a consensual basis, the same way they can carry out a search.”
However, Sgt. Costner emphasized, “there is no physical law that says people have to display ID on demand unless they’re driving a vehicle.”
“What about a passenger riding in an automobile?” I specified.
“No — you don’t have to display ID as a passenger; only as a driver,” repeated Sgt. Costner.
Locke defines tyranny as power exercised beyond right. The officer who demanded my ID was acting as a petty tyrant. Had he threatened me with arrest for refusing to produce it, he would have committed a crime specifically defined in the Idaho State Code: Title 18, section 703 provides that “Every public officer … who, under the pretense or color of any process or other legal authority, arrests any person or detains him against his will … without a regular process or other lawful authority therefor, is guilty of a misdemeanor.”
The presumptuous intrusiveness of the officer who stopped us reflects a martial law mindset: Like most law enforcement officers, he sees himself as a caste apart from, and set above, the “civilian” population, and thus empowered to command submission from us.
More to the point: He sees himself as possessing innate authority, rather than authority derived from the law. He is the law, at least in the theater of his small and otherwise uncluttered mind. Note how his idea of a legal warrant is the phrase, “Because I told you to.”
My polite but pointed rejoinder was based on the tacit but clearly understood question, quo warranto? — By what authority are you making this demand? This dispelled the officer’s pretense that he is somebody to whom reflexive obedience is due, as opposed to someone whose authority — such as it is — must be considered derivative, limited, and conditional.
Sure, the officer succeeded in securing cooperation through a lie. But the frustration-inspired threat of collective punishment — “You just helped your friend get a ticket!” — and the impotent warning, delivered from a safe distance by way of my friend Scott (“tell your friend he’d better cool it!”) give some indication, I suspect, of how deeply this encounter injured the officer’s unearned sense of self-regard. Most acts of lawless police violence are committed in the service of that self-image, which is endlessly reinforced through training and peer socialization.
In 1992, amid a growing scandal provoked by a wave of criminal violence committed by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, an investigation was conducted under the leadership of James G. Kolts, a conservative Republican retired L.A. County Superior Court Judge who had been appointed by Ronald Reagan.
The resulting 358-page “Kolts Report” described a department that behaved in a manner largely indistinguishable from the conduct of a Third World death squad: Beatings, extra-judicial killings, planting evidence, robberies, and other undisguised criminal actions were commonplace; they almost always went unpunished, and were often rewarded.
One particularly notorious officer, Paul Archambault, was a serial killer with a badge who twice gunned down unarmed, harmless people with extreme prejudice (in one case pausing to re-load before commenting, "He’s still moving" an unleashing a second volley).
On one occasion, as sheriff’s deputies pumped round after round into a man named Hyong Po Lee following a pursuit, one San Jose police officer who witnessed the event commented to another: “We just observed the sheriffs execute someone.” In the year prior to the formation of the Kolts Commission, there were several instances in which deputies back-shot unarmed people; none of the shooters was ever disciplined in any way, let alone prosecuted.
Summary execution was not the only distinguishing activity of the LASO’s under Sheriff Sherman Block. In April 1989, a man named Demetrio Carillo was seized and beaten after he rebuked deputies for driving on the sidewalk near his home — one of many to face summary “street justice” for “mouthing off.” Deputies were taught by Field Training Officers how to falsify official reports to justify an arrest after the fact when the real purpose of the arrest was to punish anyone who refused to display the required deference.
“This is the worst aspect of police culture, where the worst crime of all is ‘contempt of cop,’” observed the Kolts Report. “The officer cannot let pass the slightest challenge or failure immediately to comply. It is here that excessive force starts and needs to be stopped.”
The endless parade of abuses inflicted by police on citizens who fail to display the required docility testifies that this “aspect of police culture” has replicated itself nation-wide. In the company of my wife, our infant child, and a close friend, I encountered it just north of Lapwai, Idaho last Friday night. Things could have turned out much worse. Next time, they probably will.