Sunday, May 02, 2010

Peter Watts

Several months ago, sci-fi writer Peter Watts was assaulted by US border patrol guards. He was then charged with assaulting a federal officer, who claimed that Peter choked him. Apparently there was a video of the event that (along with a witness) proved the choking claim was false.

Peter Watts' blog is kind of a mess and so far I haven't been able to find the information I was looking for (such as: was the whole thing captured on video or was the car out-of-frame? did he give the guards his keys at some point before the altercation?), but the jist of the story is: while attempting to return to Canada, US border guards began to search his car without telling him. Upon noticing that they were doing something, he got out of his car and asked what they were doing. The guard didn't answer, but instead told him to get back in the car. He made the mistake of repeating his question, at which point one or more border guards punched him in the face and sprayed mace in his nose. Apparently he was outside his car for just 10-12 seconds, but nevertheless was convicted with a felony for failing to obey the instruction.

Like the Iraq story I wrote about in my last post, what we have here is a clear case of abuse of power. And like the last story, the most shocking thing to me is not so much that somebody abused their power (a common failing among people with power), but rather what the consequences were for that abuse. Instead of the guards being fired, fined, or reprimanded for their behavior, the government not only protected the perpetrators, but formally charged the victim with a felony for being a few seconds too slow. Just as amazing, the jury found that the law was on the government's side, and they had to convict (see "DVD Extras" link below).

Doesn't this lack of consequences lead directly to more abuse of power? Spare the rod, spoil the adult, you might say.

And as with the Iraq incident, I fear that cases like this happen more often than we know. A relatively well-known individual with media-savvy friends like Peter Watts can make the news (even if the news doesn't care to talk to him). But for every Peter Watts there may be hundred ordinary joes seriously mistreated by people with power, who don't have enough connections to get their story heard.

While writing about the Iraq incident I read all the high-rated comments at Slashdot, some of which were very interesting, such as Mondorescue's comments about rules of engagement, and insightful quotables like "the difference between a murderer and a soldier is that a murderer wants to kill".

Likewise there are some good comments on the Peter Watts case, so I'll quote them if you don't mind.
"This law includes offenses ranging from assault and battery to simply standing too close to an officer..."

"Standing too close to an officer" is a crime? OK, that's about the walking definition of a bad law.

What was Watts' crime? He asked the officers what they were doing.

He didn't strike anyone. He didn't kick anyone. According to the record he didn't even use harsh language. Apparently our law enforcement community has become so vicious and cowardly they'll beat people bloody just for looking at them wrong.

Peter Watts is a geek scifi writer. Judging from his photos, he weighs about 160. My wife could smack him around. He's about as threatening as a tuna sandwich.

I recently took a defensive driving course (because my insurance offered me a sizeable discount for doing so) and they pointed out that in the little book given for drivers for the written test, it explicitly states that should you be pulled over, at no time should you exit your vehicle unless instructed to do so by the officer. There really is no excuse.

Then you are an idiot. You don't understand why it's in there. It was never for the protection of the police. It was for your own protection. Think about it (I know, hard for you). You pull over on the right side of the road. Your door is on the left. You open it, and you are standing out in traffic. Safety is the one and only one reason that rule was ever started. However, since then, they've asserted that to be "normal" behavior and any abnormal behavior at all is dangerous. So now, it's an issue, not because of the police's safety, but for your own for not playing in traffic, and for your own because it will be seen as unusual behavior. There's nothing aggressive about getting out of the car. There was never an issue about it being bad for cops when the recommendation was created.

[....] -AK Marc

I visited the US and drove around as a tourist once, got stopped by the police and did what folk in the UK do - I got out of the car to wait by the side of it to show the police that I wasn't going to do a runner. I didn't know that you sit inside the car until the police come to you in the USA, nobody told me this when I got my tourist visa stamped at immigration or when I picked up the hire car.

Things escalated very fast and I found myself surrounding by two or three police cars with people shouting stuff and pointing guns at me. Very scary when you're not quite sure why this is all happening. Fair play to the police officers, after a couple of minutes of me putting my hands in the air and shouting "Sorry, I am a tourist, I don't know what I've done" things calmed down to the point that we could have a chat and sort things out pleasantly (we all shook hands at the end of it and the cops pointed out where a local hotel was, my mission of the moment).

Not sure what the answer is, should foreign nationals have to read the local written driving test / read the handbooks before being allowed to drive a car in another country?
(Does an official handbook even exist that says you can't get out of the car when pulled over?)
A jury found him guilty of felony non-compliance, so he must have done more than just stepped out of his car.

Actually, from the reports, that's EXACTLY what he did, and the judge basically cut him loose for it.

he did so at border patrol, which by definition carries a higher risk for officers,

I am so sick of hearing this. Cowardice is no excuse for brutality. I grew up military. Come to one of my family dinners and let the Vietnam veterans in my family explain what a dangerous job is.

Looking at the Department of Labor statistics, being a cop is a VERY safe job. You know who gets killed on the job more often than police officers? Construction workers. Cab drivers. Fast food workers. Hotel clerks.

Hop over to the forums on "" and listen to the boys on blue in their own words for a while. They'll tell you quite openly they feel absolutely no obligation to put themselves in harm's way for the "sheeple," and they proudly proclaim "I AM GOING HOME TONIGHT" no matter how many receptionists and secretaries have to die to make that happen.

I spent some time with the State Fire Association. Seems like everyone last one of those guys is missing an eye, ear or finger, and has a quietly proud story of how they traded that part of their body for some stranger's kid. I stand in awe of their dedication, sacrifice and courage.

The institutional cowardice and crutality of law enforcement stands in stark contrast.
- jeko
(I don't entirely agree with this comment but I love the one-liner: Cowardice is no excuse for brutality! Mind you, I'm not sure it's fair to say that bullies are cowards. If somebody might be a threat so you beat them up just in case--to guarantee your own safety by hurting an innocent--that's cowardice. Hurting someone because you're a bully--that's just evil.)


Perspective anecdote: one of my personal "unknown heroes" is a highway cop who stood there calmly listening to this frustrated motorist he pulled over deliver this obscene tirade of vitriol. He just asked questions, wrote the ticket, and let the guy vent. No shouting, no arrest for disorderly conduct, no mace, no "he tripped in the car and hit his face on the steering wheel", nothing. Totally kept his cool. You could have balanced tigers on his cool. So when I read of situations like this, where a guard flies off the handle and beats the crap out of a tourist for daring to ask what the problem is, I know one bad cop doesn't mean all bad cops - I've seen the proof otherwise.

When an officer of the law resorts to the use of violence (and I mean bloody violence, not some wrestling lock or whatever) on a non-violent "offender" (regardless of any verbal aggressiveness), I consider that officer has failed in his duty. But what truly disturbs me is not that it inevitably happens - we're all human - but that it can be excused and abetted when it happens so blatantly. When the testimonies of those guards present not only don't match but contradict, when the guy laying on the ground covered in mace and his own blood gets dragged through the courts and convicted of a felony, when the officer who put him there does not even get an official reprimand let alone arrested himself... it has gone way past one officer losing his temper and making a mistake.
- Sabriel



The fault with the statements above is that they equate police officers with DHS guards. Despite having been on the wrong side of the law many times, I do believe that the vast majority of police officers are honest folks who foster good relations with their citizens and have honest intent(the only bad publicity seems to come from Los Angeles, with its officers up against crotch-grabbers [] and coked-up madmen using babies for human shields []). I also agree that they're not out to cause trouble because they want to go home to their families without any bullshit.

However - DHS guards are not police officers. They are glorified security guards gone mad with the power they attained in the wake of 9/11. The vast majority of them face no danger, and the last one to be shot to death(since the '80's) passed under mysterious circumstances with his gun stolen, an obvious cover-up. [....]

- Ethanol-fueled

but what trained officers are supposed to do is expect the subject to do the worst possible thing...

No. Not even soldiers are trained to do that. Civilian law enforcement is trained to use good judgement. It is more important to know when NOT to shoot than it is to know when TO shoot. Keep running Mad Max fantasies through your head like anyone who COULD pull a gun WILL pull a gun, and you end up shooting a kid for no good reason like one ex-officer I personally know.

If you haven't been in a situation where a person wants to argue with cops and then for some unknown reason pulls out a gun,

Here's another nonsense argument I'm sick of. Since you're pressing the point, yes, I have been shot at. No, it's not pleasant at all. No, the fear that someone MIGHT take a shot at you is no excuse for beating civilians bloody. -jeko

All this reminds me of this interesting 40-minute educational video: 10 Rules for Dealing with Police. Stay safe out there!

1 comment:

smg.rhill said...

Hi David

Another interesting post from you. This story doesn't surprise me in the least because this is the way US peelers and enforcement agents are so often portrayed on the screen. Lots of shouting and excitement and waving of guns.

In the UK if some official wants to search your vehicle/home etc you are supposed to accompany them. That way they are covered against accusations of planted material. If stopped in Northern Ireland you HAD to get out of the car to open the boot or bonnet. The soldier or peeler wouldn't do so for fear of being accused of breaking something. It was then up to you to close everything afterwards.

I would not be a happy teddy if someone were futering about in my boot without my being able to see what was going on and would probably have behaved like the Brit tourist in the quotes.

Many, many years ago I was searched at border controls in the old Soviet Union (They had taken me for a Mormon - must have been the haircut). I would have to say that everything seemed to be done very carefully by much the same standards as I would have expected back home. Everything was explained, I was present throughout the search of my luggage and whilst not a pleasant experience I didn't feel as threatened as my paranoia about planted dollars, jeans or bibles had led me to believe.

I once crossed the 49 into Seattle for a few days whilst visiting friends in Vancouver. A shop assistant asked me how I liked the town and I admitted that I didn't feel safe on the streets at night. Quite right too I was told. Never walk anywhere. I was much relieved to reach the frontier and head back into sunny Canada. At least the shotguns in the patrol cars were not quite so evident and there didn't seem to be gun shops on every street.

I note from the Port Huron Times Herald:

"[Judge] Adair said the sentencing guidelines called for up to six months in jail. He stressed to Watts the need to comply with police officers and follow orders and ask questions later. The judge added law enforcement officials never know what sort of situation they might be going into next."

So if I have this correct. US enforcement officers can do whatever the hell they like and you don't get a word in edgeways until they have finished - and the legal services agree.

Do remind me not to bother to go back to the States.