I posted a reader poll yesterday on the video of the U.S. Park Police officer tasing an OccupyDC protester, and the responses are fascinating. With about 2,000 votes, opinion is almost exactly evenly divided. 43% say the officer acted appropriately; 41% say the officer did not act appropriately; and 16% say that they need more information before deciding. The comment thread is equally divided, with over 300 comments so far.
Why is opinion so divided? My pet hypothesis is that most people recognize two competing narratives when it comes to police-citizen interaction. The first narrative is what you might call the equality narrative. The equality narrative posits that the police are just citizens who happen to wear uniforms, and they have no more right to get their way than anyone else. If an officer asks a person questions, for example, he doesn’t have to respond. Unless the officer orders him to stay put, he can walk away.
The second narrative is what I’ll call the inequality narrative. The inequality narrative posits that the police have special authority by virtue of being police officers, and that people interacting with the police have to recognize that special authority and should expect trouble if they don’t. If an officer decides to make an arrest, for example, the subject of the arrest can’t just decide he would rather not be arrested and try to resist the officer’s efforts.
The key to these two narratives is that they’re both true — at times. The equality narrative is often true. In some circumstances, the police have no more power than anyone else. The inequality narrative is also often true. In other circumstances, the police do have the power to use force to overcome the resistance of individuals who may not want to do what the police want.
The OccupyDC taser video is particularly interesting because it starts midway through the scene. The offense that triggered the officers’ approaching the suspect (tearing down the notices) is minor. The video therefore presents a circumstance in which viewers can reasonably differ as to whether we should be in the equality-narrative zone or the inequality-narrative zone. As a result, different viewers fill in the uncertainty by just picking a narrative. In general, those who are more distrustful of the police pick the equality narrative. They interpret the officers’ conduct as bullying. In their view, grabbing the protester was an act of thuggery. Those who are less distrustful of the police generally pick the inequality narrative. They see the protester as practically asking for an elevated use of force by resisting the officers’ efforts to arrest him, and they see the officers as acting appropriately in response.