The way the system handled the Rodney King case was not meant to be an instructional manual. The recent Eric Hightower incident has nothing to do with how bad Hightower was or is and all about what the police are free to do.
St. Paul Police Federation President Dave Titus said the decision shows that the officers “acted in good faith and according to their training.” I would like to see police training footage of recruits kicking people lying on the ground. Titus, within the same statement, called “potentially hostile onlookers” a “large threatening crowd.”
So what were they, “potentially hostile” or a real “threat?” Titus said the video taken “does not tell the whole story of the officers’ perception of the entire situation.”
Even when there is real life footage of police brutality, the police tell us it is not real: “No, no, no, that unprovoked kick to Hightower’s upper chest, lower-neck area is not reality. Let me tell you what it really is.”
What made the entire crowd threatening? What made the onlookers potentially hostile? Skin color?
It is not a “war” between two fractions, based on color: “You better get me some backup over here. They’re closing in on me. The enemy is surrounding me. I need help! They’re outraged because I’m arresting one of their own.”
Racism has one constant: It will always cause a situation to snowball into a more dangerous and volatile situation. The arresting officers do not get leniency or the freedom to escalate the violence upon the suspect so they could get out of the area based on their faulty “perceptions of the entire situation” when they automatically saw all the onlookers as threatening because of skin color.
To justify an escalation of violence upon the suspect, the police and the media are using the perceptions that the officers had on a threat coming from the onlookers. Did the onlookers have clubs and pitchforks, or was the color of their skin the threat?
Thanks to the Olmsted County attorney’s decision on the Eric Hightower case, it will be open season for the police to strike or kick a Black man who is lying on the ground. The police need this freedom because “a more stringent standard could inhibit action.” But we want to “inhibit action” that is wrong, including such action by the police. This is why the police exist, to stop actions that are wrong.
“Police officers are afforded a wide degree of discretion precisely because a more stringent standard could inhibit action.” Not a wide enough degree of discretion to kick a middle-aged White man lying on the ground with hands in plain view, but always a wide enough degree of discretion to kick a Black man of any age who is on the ground with hands in plain view.
The last thing we want are police officers not taking action because they do not have the freedom to kick a man who is lying on the ground. The Olmstead County attorney’s office is really stretching the “reasonable force” law that is in place for the police.
The police do not need the freedom to kick a person who is on the ground to properly do their job. Not being able to kick a person on the ground is not going to inhibit action by the police and handcuff them from doing their job.
So how many kicks are “reasonable force?” At what point was the Rodney King situation no longer “reasonable force?” If the Olmsted County attorney’s office is going to say that kicking a man while he is on the ground is using reasonable force, then that puts them in support of the LAPD’s treatment of Rodney King if they don’t specify how many kicks.
No one at the Olmstead County attorney’s office would say they are in agreement with the treatment of Rodney King. That is if they want to keep their jobs. But there is no other way to interpret their verdict.
Frank Erickson lives in Minneapolis.