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We Have Rights. Cops Have Latitude. The Big Thing Is Not Getting Shot.

Activists demonstrated in front of Dallas Police Department headquarters after Botham Jean's death in September 2018.
Activists demonstrated in front of Dallas Police Department headquarters after Botham Jean's death in September 2018.
Brian Maschino
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Our basic rights: that’s one thing. Very important. I’m a huge fan of basic rights. But I also don’t want people to get shot. So I’ve been wondering lately if here in Dallas we need to have a second conversation. If, like me, you really don’t want to get shot, what should you do?

All sorts of intriguing, important questions about race, cops, violence and civil rights can be extracted from two recent local events. I’m talking about the acquittal this week of a Mesquite police officer who shot a man in the back (didn’t kill him) and a decision by the Dallas County district attorney not to indict six DeSoto police officers accused of terrorizing a family.

The first point is that both events turn the race issue pretty much on its ear, at least in those two cases. For decades, a whole lot of people — well, me — have pretty much assumed that the central, driving factor in police shootings of unarmed black citizens is racism. And, believe me, I’m not just letting go of that.

But Mesquite officer Derick Wiley and the man he shot in 2017, Lyndo Jones, are both back. I’m not sure how much that proves. Race is important. I mean, c’mon, without white racial heebie-jeebies (“They’re taking our country clubs”), there wouldn’t be a Republican Party. But in a showdown between a citizen and a cop, lots of other factors can be more immediate and consequential, like making the cop mad or scaring the cop. The Wiley case shows how that’s true even when everybody’s black.

I believe it’s probably also true when everyone is white. I don’t believe there is a white pass for trying to grab a cop’s gun. There might be. Maybe I’m being naive: “Well, sir, you tried to grab my gun; you spat on me; you made me roll in the mud and get sweated up; you called me the MF-word 24 times; but I see now that you are a white man, so I forgive you.” It’s not something I personally would be willing to bet on. Hold that thought.

The DeSoto case is even more nuanced. Six police officers are accused of fanning the flames of a family dispute, throwing a mother to the ground, pulling guns and using a Taser.

The family is African American. Four of the six cops are black. The mayor and the entire DeSoto City Council are black. John Creuzot, the Dallas County district attorney who declined to prosecute the cops, is African American.

Creuzot has been lambasted in recent months by police organizations and The Dallas Morning News for policies his critics say are anti-law-and-order. But let’s set philosophy aside for the moment and talk about the street and what people do in their workdays.

Creuzot’s long legal career includes seven years as a prosecutor, some of that as the chief felony prosecutor, and 21 years as a felony district court judge. For most of his career he has been law enforcement.

Creuzot’s decision not to go after the DeSoto cops was based on a finding by his staff: They were unable to determine with certainty that a prosecutable offense had been committed by the police. Please hold that thought for a moment, as well. (I apologize for asking you to hold two thoughts at the same time, but I know you can do it.)

In both Mesquite and DeSoto, we can, for the sake of argument, take race out of it. I’m not saying race is not in it a lot of the time. I already told you: I’m a snowflake anti-Trump liberal, and most of the time I carry more race cards with me than business cards. I could combine them: my name, phone number, email address and then “Race Card.”

My point here is that even when you do take race out of the situation, you still have a situation. An encounter with a cop is always inherently dangerous. Cops don’t stop you to tell you how good-looking you are. Most of the time, if a cop stops you, you’re already in a situation, no matter what.

You could desire and expect all police officers to be genteel, mannerly and self-controlled at all times in their dealings with the public. You could also desire for them to be able to become airborne by flapping their arms.

I apologize in advance for using a vulgarism, but some cops, a minority, are assholes. At least they seem like that to us snowflakes. Is it because they have a different view of life, or were they born that way? That’s an interesting question and one I may work on someday between weaving plastic lanyards at the nursing home. Right now, I’m going to stay focused on the reality.

The Dallas Morning News yesterday had a big editorial about the Dallas police officers caught posting racist, misogynistic stuff on Facebook. I think it’s terrible that police officers thought they could keep anything secret on Facebook. And I already told you about my politics. But the Morning News suggested these cops might have to be fired.

Yikes. What are we down, 500 cops? Some people say we’re down 600 from what staffing levels need to be. Police staffing is a complicated question, but strong anecdotal evidence exists that response times are bad now for anything short of total mayhem. Rather than firing people for Facebook posts, maybe we should stick to real life for a while — what they actually do.

And that brings me back to those thoughts we’ve been holding. You do still have your two thoughts with you, right? One is that in any encounter between a citizen and a cop, even when you pluck race out of that situation, you still have a situation. Encounters with cops either are scary already or they could get that way fast, race card or no race card.

The second is that a whole lot of bad things can happen between cops and me — I get Tased, I get thrown to the curb when maybe none of that absolutely had to happen — and I still don’t have a case against the cops. People in authority who deal with these issues every day, like Creuzot, are aware the cops operate in a unique perilous space and must be allowed a degree of latitude in order to get the job done and go home at night not in a wheelchair.

Derick Wiley
Derick Wiley
Mesquite Police

Most of the time — not every time, and the exceptions are important — but most of the time if I put my marginal rights up against a cop’s latitude, my rights are going to lose, snowflake or not, white or not, race card or not, just how it is. And finally that brings me to that other conversation I started out saying we need to have.

In addition to the very important conversations about race and our shared civil rights and liberties, we need to have a big conversation about not getting shot. When I walk out the door in the morning, not getting shot is actually at the top of my priority list, even ahead of snowflake.

Sometimes not getting shot is not as simple as it might seem. It’s easy if the cop is a gentleperson. But I have had encounters with cops who were assholes. So, in terms of dealing with cops who are assholes, cops who may have made bad Facebook posts, for example, what standard are we trying to hit in the not-getting-shot department?

The danger of getting shot would seem to be at its very highest when the cop in question is the biggest asshole. Would you agree with that? It’s not going be Officer Johnny Gentleman who uses his latitude as an excuse to plug you. We’re talking about the other guy.

So the rule should be to go that much flatter, that much more obedient, that much more totally nonthreatening the more of a jerk the cop is and the more convinced you are that your rights are being abused. That’s when it’s going to happen. If you do anything less than go totally flat, shut-mouth, yes, officer, no, officer, you may get shot.

This isn’t a brilliant invention or discovery I’m offering here. I also am aware that it’s easier for an old white guy to say this stuff than it might be for a young man or woman of color sick of being treated like a second-class citizen. None of this is easy for anybody. But I really just don’t want anybody to get shot.

Rich white people have their own version of this. Cops have told me they hate working Preston Hollow because every person they pull over for drunk-speeding starts off with, “Do you know who I am?” I suspect they say it because it works. That sucks.

It’s not fair that some cops may inflict a heavier hand on poor people than on rich. But not fair is not worth getting shot. Not fair is what you talk about later. There are ways to deal with not fair. But if you want to see really not fair, double not fair, the worst kind of not fair, argue with the cops. Fight the cops. What’s really not fair is being dead. I have no idea what the court system is up there.

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