Orin’s Pet Hypothesis on the Competing Narratives of Police-Citizen Interaction

February 1st, 2012

Following up on Orin’s previous post about how people perceive a video of an Occupier getting tased, we have this follow-up.

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.

This more-or-less fits in with my perception of Orin, as I noted in a comment earlier:

Orin tries so hard to offer a neutral assessment of everything that he is loathe to ever offer his own opinions. When he has addressed it, he essentially says that his lack of a normative opinion is based on his neutral, balanced approach to everything. I think Orin, in fact, after trying so hard for so many years to divorce himself from any ideological perspective, has trained his brain to think objectively. It is quite remarkable, really. Most people think this is a charade, in Orin’s attempt to pretend to be neutral. I don’t. I think this is honestly how he views constitutional law issues.

And I do mean that favorably. He has trained himself to truly see both sides on everything. And he really challenges everyone else to justify their thinking.