20 April 2008

What’s A Cop’s Job? On The Arrest of the Jefferson Memorial Dancer

Consider what you would do if you were entrusted with the responsibility to ensure that our nation’s most venerated monuments are respected and honored by those who visit. It’s midnight at the Jefferson Memorial on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday and a motley pack of wild-eyed people show up and start dancing (nothing fancy just individuals be-bopping in each other’s vicinity) with headphones on while some of them are recording this on cameras and phones. The signage clearly states that visitors are to be quiet and respectful of others. What would you do?

The park police immediately decided that this was disrespectful and/or disorderly conduct and several quickly moved in to eject the dancers from the monument. The dancers were shocked by this and asked for explanations, but the park police were reluctant to offer any information and mostly repeated their demand that the dancers leave. When confronted by the fact that the dancers were quiet, according to posted rules, the park officers accused the dancers of being disorderly. One dancer asked for clarification and was arrested and detained for five hours. According to the web site FreeTheJefferson1.com she was charged with “interfering with an agency function” (whatever that means).

What is the proper role of the police? How should this have been handled?

First, the moral problem. The police acted in a manner that appears arbitrary and capricious which undermines their moral authority. The moral foundation of empowering police officers with extraordinary powers is our fundamental human desire for a peaceful and orderly existence. But when they are the source of disorder by arbitrarily disrupting the lawful behavior of citizens, then they are abusing their powers.

We recognize that due to the inherent diversity of human thoughts, manners, and cultures, we cannot avoid conflict and that some form of professional assistance in times of conflict can help prevent escalation of a situation into violence and hatred. The fundamental moral job of authorities of all kinds is to prevent violence from becoming a normal way of living. Empowering police to wield the tools of violence and entrusting them with lethal forms of protection are our way of reacting to the tools of violence that we routinely expect to disrupt our day-to-day lives. If we didn’t expect bad people to carry lethal weapons then there would be no sense in giving the cops lethal weapons. We expect them to respond to threats appropriately with the ultimate goal of keeping the peace. We expect them to act within the confines of a code of professional conduct that would help them overcome the average human bias that normally clouds individual judgment in emotionally charged situations.

The videos of the dancing incident at the Jefferson Memorial seem to indicate that the police reacted in a highly unprofessional manner. They interpreted the actions of a group of people to be a threat of some kind and then acted swiftly and without any meaningful communication about why they were taking the actions they took.

These are the park police failures.
1. They judged the activity of dancing to be a threat to the sanctity of the monument
2. They created a conflict by ordering the dancers to leave without explanation
3. They escalated the conflict by using foul language, engaging with people by physical contact and openly displaying anger.

With the job of keeping the peace, our police are entrusted with an extraordinary responsibility for acting in a manner that ultimately leads to the lessening of conflicts, not the creation of conflicts. Given the videos that I have seen and the account of the organizer, it appears that the police abused their authority, violated the public trust, and may have abrogated the rights of the arrested dancer, if not the rights of all the people who were peacefully gathered to celebrate Tomas Jefferson’s birthday with a late night show of physical exuberance.

Consider this three part series of articles entitled “The Situational Sources Of Evil” by Philip Zimbardo, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University. He revisits Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments on obedience and shows a number of ways that authority can be abused. The question on the flip side is how to create professional codes of conduct for authorities (i.e. uniformed and armed law enforcement officers) in such a way that abuses like this can be prevented.

The fundamental practical problem is that they made a ridiculous judgment of the situation and then simply played out the “Authority” cards they dealt themselves. The exercise of authority needs some way to reign in the tendencies of the officers to act merely according to their role as an “Officer’ without tempering that role with some other more human roles such as “Human Being” or “Exuberant Celebrator of Jefferson’s Birthday.” Engaging a different perspective on a situation like this is where leadership is crucial.

What expectations does the park service have of it’s security forces? Are they supposed to be mindless drones enforcing precise literal rules of behavior or are they supposed to be thinking feeling people with compassion for humanity and good judgment about when and how to confront people who exercise bad judgment about what is appropriate in a national park?

From my years of experience being an adult authority wielding power over kids of all ages I assert that how a situation is handled by the authorities can be a good predictor of the response that can be expected. If authority is simply exerted without explanation or any other effort to make a human connection with the subjects who are being told what to do, then you can expect resistance from a minority of the group. If you make even a nominal connection, it can be as simple as a greeting, then you can expect a lot more compliance. Of course, if ideology is a factor, then it can be different, but there did not appear to be any ideological displays amongst the dancers.

A better handling of the situation would have involved a friendly greeting to the whole group, asking if there is an organizer, having an officer talk with the organizer as the other officers engaged with the other people to investigate the activity and the intent of it, and then either have the organizer ask everyone to leave or issuing a brief statement that due to a security concern everyone should please stop dancing and leave the monument.

The circumstances of this event are an embarrassment to law enforcement; they undermine the trust that we, the people, have in our police; and they should serve as a good opportunity for the park service to get clear about the level of professional conduct they expect of their officers. This is an object lesson in law enforcement professionalism and how unforgiving the public is for unprofessional conduct in the digital age.

I just hope the park service and any other agencies involved can take a lesson from this incident. In the meantime they should do the right thing by dismissing the charges and apologizing.

Here are links to a variety of videos of the incident and some news coverage:
Short Version

Organizers reaction

ImprovEverywhere’s reaction (where I first Found out about it)

3 part video by the organizer:
Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

News Coverage
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