The Soapbox: No, You Don’t Have To Be “Respectful” For Police Officers To Be Professional

Sandra Bland’s arrest and death has sparked outrage across the nation. Dash cam footage captured the enraged police officer, State Trooper Brian Encinia, threatening “I will light you up” while pointing a taser because the young woman refused to put out her cigarette or step out of her vehicle during a routine traffic stop. She was arrested, taken into custody, and only three days later, was found hanging from her cell in what was initially deemed a suicide.

Most have responded to this tragic news with a mix of sadness, hurt and anger. Many, including Texas state Senator Royce West, view Encinia’s behavior as an excessive use of unnecessary force. (He is currently on administrative duty as a result of violating protocol during Bland’s arrest.) Others, however, are rushing to the defense of police, saying that Bland should have simply followed the trooper’s orders and not given him “an attitude.” This kind of justification all but directly says that police brutality is a matter of unruly, indecent people getting their just deserts.

The ubiquity of such a response is quite unsettling. Don’t we expect people to perform their job and duties professionally, regardless of the behavior of others? I wonder if such logic would be applied to other occupations like healthcare or firefighting? Or perhaps the police are the overlords of society, not actually bound by their call “to serve and protect”?

I remember the first time my mother was called a nigger while working as a hospice nurse. She walked into the room of a nursing home to check on one of her patients, when the word was carelessly hurled in her direction.

“I don’t want you touching me, nigger,” the 80-year-old woman dying of stomach cancer warned. My mother assured her that her wishes would be respected and exited the room.

“She called you the n-word?” I questioned, disgusted and astonished when she came home to relay the details of her work day. “What did you do?!”

“My job,” she responded. I looked at her with a raised eyebrow.

My mother returned to work — and that room — the following day and every day after that for two weeks.

“Good morning!” she would announce with a bright smile. The elderly patient routinely greeted her with the n-word or claims that the nursing home should not be hiring monkeys. Still, my mother took a deep breath, checked the woman’s vitals, made sure she had received her meds, asked her if she was experiencing increased pain or discomfort, and all the while the patient continued to grumble and mumble racial epithets.

“It’s not my job to be bothered,” she explained one night over dinner. “It’s my job to do my job.”

And that is just what she did. My mother went to work for 12 hours at a time and did her job with a smile. Even when it meant she would be too tired to stay awake while watching a recital at school. Even when patients propositioned her for sex or said rude racist remarks. She knew that when she stepped into the role of a nurse, she had to provide the care that her patients — many of whom were in the last days of their lives — needed. That understanding wasn’t dependent on them having a great attitude or following every single request she made. No one is happy to experience pain or die — she understood that. So it was expected that a part of her job was to allow her patients space to have and express the full range of their emotions, even if that expression sometimes came at the expense of her comfort.

Many workers who provide services understand that they will encounter the full range of human reaction and self-expression, some of which will not always pleasant. People have bad days or customers can be needly rude. Despite that reality, service workers must still professionally execute the job for which they were hired. Doctors must take care of patients who can be violent, disrespectful or even condescending. Fast food workers serve customers that are often unruly. Heck, military personnel risk their lives everyday to protect the likes of Donald Trump, who claimed their sacrifices are irrelevant if they are captured by the enemy. The expectation of total compliance and complete respect is absolutely absurd. If a doctor let their patient die because he/she was non-compliant or disrespectful, that doctor would certainly face lawsuits and lose their license. If my mother – and every other worker of color – denied that racist woman in the hospital care or compassion, she would have lost her jobs, faced lawsuits or worse yet, been implicated in the death of a patient.

There is no justification for lacking that kind of professionalism, and any person who works to provide much needed services to the populous and takes that job seriously knows that. Why, then, are police officers, like State Trooper Brian Encinia, given a pass for bad behavior by many members of our society? After all, state officials reviewed the traffic stop and found that Encinia violated the police department’s traffic stop procedures. Why, then, do many among us believe those tasked with the work of enforcing the law are somehow ABOVE the law? Police officers are agents of the state. Their job is to protect and serve us. Not trample all over our rights or threaten us with physical, bodily harm because they don’t like our tone of voice.

In the event that a citizen has “an attitude” while interacting with the police, guess what: It is not the officer’s job to be bothered. It is the officer’s responsibility to do his/her job. Officer Brian Encinia’s job was to hand over the ticket/warning and walk away. Not to attempt to yank the young woman from her car or demand she comply with unnecessary orders.  As citizens of a nation that grants us legal protections, we must hold all responsible who think it is their job to infringe on those rights. Not give them a pass to victimize another human being.