Unless you live under a rock, you've probably seen this footage of an NYPD officer body slamming tennis player James Blake after mistaking Blake for a suspect (who, it turns out, was innocent anyway):
This is pretty inexcusable behavior. It's especially galling in that the response of so many law enforcement (and their supporters) to the cases of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and the many other recent victims of brutality has often been "well, don't resist and you'll be fine." Except videos like this show that to be the blatant lie is (not that it would be fine if that were actually true anyway, as we supposedly have rights and don't live in a police state); Blake is not only not resisting, he can't be said to be doing anything even remotely suspicious, let alone dangerous. Dude is standing still in a hotel lobby. Any rational person watching this video would conclude that is excessive force.
But you know who wouldn't conclude that? NYPD PBS spokesperson/off-brand Voldemort, Patrick Lynch, that's who. Lynch, of course, pulls out the old canard of "unless you're out there doing it, you don't know anything about it, and therefore can never judge it in any way possible." Now in this sense, the police aren't unique -- a lot of professionals will argue people who aren't in the field can never truly understand it and therefore shouldn't be allowed to judge it; just ask any physician how they feel about medical malpractice suits. Or any professional athlete how they feel about sports writers.
But the difference is that, for some reason, people accept it with police. It's like the argument that criminals don't follow laws so we shouldn't have any gun laws -- the idea that criminals don't follow laws and therefore laws are worthless would theoretically apply to every single criminal law we have, but for whatever reason, people only accept this idea with gun control. It's fascinating how arguments so obviously invalid get accepted in certain debates, but that's not what I'm here to write about today.
No, instead I want to address the idea that people who aren't police can't understand, and therefore can't judge, the actions of police. In a certain, very broad and theoretical sense this is true -- hell, it forms the basis of the post-modern line of thinking most often referred to as "standpoint theory,"which is essentially the idea that one can only understand the things they've directly experienced. And to a certain extent, I'll buy this -- I don't know what it's like to be in every situation a cop may find themselves in.
But to return to the professional athlete example, I'll also never know what it's like to play quarterback in the NFL. Hell, I was a b-team second-stringer on my 8th grade football team, and that's the closest I've gotten to any actual football experience. But I can still tell you that Ryan Leaf sucks. Sure, he has infinitely more experience playing quarterback than I ever will and can play quarterback infinitely better than I can, but I can still look at objective measures of his play and come to the incredibly rational conclusion that Ryan Leaf was not a good NFL quarterback. I can come to this conclusion without any experience playing quarterback in the NFL because it's quite easy to look at someone playing poorly and conclude they're playing poorly. Maybe I'm not qualified to diagnose exactly why he played so poorly, or to give suggestions on how he could play better, but I think it's fairly safe to say my lack of experience playing professional football does not preclude me from looking at objective measures of Leaf's ability and drawing basic conclusions (like that he sucks) from those objective measures.
Well, the same is very much true of policing. Sure, I may not be able to really understand on a deep level what it means to be a police officer. But that doesn't mean I can't look at a situation, assess the objective facts, and then draw basic conclusions about what happened. And in case like Blake's, it's not like there's a lot of ambiguity. I mean, watch the video -- he's standing completely still, when some random dude (an undercover officer, but of course there's no way Blake could have known that) rushes up to him and tackles him. This is obviously bad policing. Blake presents no threat, there's no rational reason to believe he would all of a sudden pose a threat, and the crime he was mistakenly suspected of committing was credit card fraud, not really your most violent crime.
Basically, this cop's actions were the equivalent of Ryan Leaf's quarterback play in the NFL -- so obviously and objectively bad that you don't need any experience or deep knowledge of what is happening to know that what is happening is bad. So just like the fact that criminals not following laws doesn't mean we shouldn't have laws, not being able to exactly understand everything a police officer experiences in no way precludes members of the general public from noting that tackling an innocent man who is doing nothing is wrong and bad, regardless of how stressful the officer's day may have been, or whatever next excuse Lynch and his ilk are going to trot out to justify this kind of blatantly illegal behavior.