Why Do Innocent People Flee From Police?

“Why did he run?” This question thrusts itself upon us every time an unarmed or otherwise harmless person is gunned down while fleeing from police.

Often that inquiry takes the form that assumes the guilt of the victim: “If he did nothing wrong, why did he run?” It’s also common for that second version to contort itself into a nicely circular argument: “Well, he ran, and resisting arrest is a crime, so obviously he got what was coming to him.”

For reasons unclear to a mind not enthralled by statist assumptions, most people simply assume that both reason and morality dictate an unqualified duty to surrender without cavil or complaint whenever armed, violence-prone strangers in peculiar government-issued garb seek to restrain one of us.

This is why police are trained to interpret any hesitation, reluctance to cooperate, inhospitable body language, or verbal expression of resentment as “resisting arrest” and thus a justification for the use of “pain compliance” – or even lethal force. Police and their apologists likewise insist – contrary to both law and judicial precedent – that there is no right to resist even a clearly unwarranted or abusive arrest, or even for a citizen to take steps to protect himself when he’s on the receiving end of unjustified physical violence from police.

Police are constantly catechized about the dangers they encounter when they conduct traffic stops or detain people on the street. Why, the random “civilian” they encounter might be armed, trained in the use of weapons, and prepared to use violence without warning! This is to say that this hypothetical “civilian” would be … just like the typical police officer.

“Officer safety” must be paramount in such encounters, we are told. If a policeman is just a bit too quick to fire up the Taser or pull the trigger, it’s because he has a dangerous and stressful job.

Are we therefore to assume that encounters between police and mere “mundanes” aren’t particularly dangerous and stressful to the latter?

Given that police claim the supposed authority to pre-empt potential violence in the name of “officer safety,” we’re entitled to ask: Why isn’t “citizen safety” a legally effective defense for preemptive violence by law-abiding people to protect themselves against unjustified violence by police?

At present, the only form of “preemption” considered legally and morally acceptable is unqualified submission. People wrongfully on the receiving end of police violence are given the same advice that used to be given to potential rape victims: Don’t resist, don’t fight back – it will only turn out much worse, and you may be killed.

Anyone who doesn’t immediately submit to arrest, irrespective of the circumstances, is “going to lose and possibly hurt yourself and others in the process,” insists retired Milwaukee Police Officer Mark Zupnik. “You do not have the right to resist.”

“There are several more beneficial ways of pleading your case and challenging your arrest,” Zupnik continues. “Get a lawyer, file a motion in court, go to pre-trial and plead your case. Make a formal complaint challenging your arrest to the proper authority, but don’t resist or fight! It will add to your problems even if the arrest was a mistake. You don’t have the right to resist a legal arrest and it’s that simple. In most states, resisting arrest is an additional charge up to a felony, even for minor physical resistance.”

Zupnik, like others of an authoritarian cast of mind, embrace a tautological view of what constitutes a “legal” arrest: It’s any arrest carried out by a police officer, who supposedly embodies the law. This is why he warns that resistance in any situation will result in a criminal charge which will be filed before “a usually unsympathetic judge” who will perceive you as someone who “fought the law” – which is always on the side of the state’s armed enforcers, from this perspective.

After two police arrived at her home in August 2008, San Jose resident Ruth Mendiola earned an assault and a charge of “resisting arrest” when she asked to see a warrant the cops were supposedly there to deliver. She was on the phone with the police department trying to verify the identity of the officers when she was seized by one of them, who kneed her in the ribs and then threw her on a bed to handcuff her.

David Haflich – a Caucasian with light brown hair – was severely beaten by San Jose police when he was mistaken for a suspect in a child abduction – a Latino with black hair. Ordered to hit the ground, Haflich froze in his tracks, an act of insubordination serious enough, supposedly, to justify a gang-tackle and beating by police, who charged him with “resisting arrest” even though he wasn’t a criminal suspect.

In 206 court cases in which the most serious charge against the defendant was “resisting arrest,” the paper documented that “145 – 70 percent of the cases – involved the use of force by officers,” observes the Mercury News. It’s as if inoffensive pedestrians, motorists, and bicyclists were victimized by routine acts of criminal violence committed by an armed street gang … which, come to think of it, is exactly what is going on.
This kind of officially sanctioned lawlessness is a general affliction.

In Ohio, police who showed up at a house fire to gawk and collect overtime tased and arrested a 19-year-old who had been helping friends and family escape the blaze. This happened after one of the torpid donut-devourers hurled profane invective at one of the residents of the burning house, a young woman, who had asked them why they were standing around in subsidized stupefaction while people were in danger.

Last May, Minneapolis resident Rolando Ruiz was stopped by a police officer, who instructed Ruiz to place his hands on the hood of the officer’s car. Ruiz cooperated – and was shot in the neck with a Taser anyway.
The Minneapolis PD’s “use of force” policy permits such gratuitous use of potentially lethal violence, and neither the policy nor any particular case is subject to civilian review or oversight.

Last June, in Everett, Washington, a 51-year-old man was gunned down in his Corvette by a police officer who had grown weary of trying to talk the intoxicated driver out of his car. At the time, the drunken driver was boxed in – parked cars on either side, a police cruiser blocking him from behind, a chain link fence in front.

The officer spent perhaps five minutes trying to reason with the driver before pulling out his Taser; the drunk reacted – understandably, if tragically – by trying, unsuccessfully, to pull out of the parking space. That provoked the officer to pull his firearm and murder the driver, firing eight shots into the car while exclaiming “Enough is enough – time to end this!”

Every death of a police officer “in the line of duty” is solemnly memorialized and carefully tabulated. However, there is no official record kept of civilians who are unjustly killed or otherwise brutalized by police.
Each encounter between the police and innocent civilians is a potentially deadly experience for the latter. Thus the real question is not “Why do innocent people flee from the police?” but rather, “What rational person would submit to the police if he had any reasonable hope of eluding or resisting them?”

November 7, 2009
William Norman Grigg [send him mail] publishes the Pro Libertate blog and hosts the Pro Libertate radio program.