In the latest of a seemingly endless string of police brutality incidents in America, a video went viral last week when a South Carolina Deputy, filmed throwing a teenage high school student out of her chair and dragging her across a classroom after being called in to mediate a disagreement over her refusal to put her cellphone away in class.
Responding in a manner he deemed appropriate to the situation, Deputy Ben Fields toppled her desk, put her in a headlock, and flung her across the classroom in front of her peers, many of whom caught the act on camera and posted it online.
Deputy Fields’s supervisor, Sheriff Leon Lott of Richland County, dismissed Fields two days after the incident spread nationwide via social media, but defended him nonetheless, arguing that “[Fields] tried to do his job, and that’s what he feels like he did.” In his statement, Lott goes on to chastise the student in question for “having started this whole incident with her actions.”
Deputy Fields is a grown man and a trained officer, and the victim in question was a 16-year-old girl playing with her cellphone. To suggest that the student in question shares any of the blame in this situation is ridiculous, and is part of the rhetoric that allows police to escape culpability for their actions and prolongs the cycle of police brutality in America.
To those who argue that this incident would not have occurred if this student were only more respectful of authority: is this officer the example of a calm, respectful authority figure we want our children emulating? How can anyone implore the young girl in this video, or any of her peers, to treat authority figures with “respect,” when their example of a respectful, mature response to a situation is an adult officer hurling a sophomore girl across a classroom like a rag doll and leaving her bruised, humiliated and scarred?
Confidence in the United States police is the lowest it’s been in 22 years, according to a recent Gallup poll. Only 19% of Americans say they have “a great deal of trust” in the police, as reported by the Huffington Post this year.
Incidents like the one in South Carolina last week are causing Americans’ levels of trust in the police to plummet lower every year — not because the entire police force is unnecessarily violent, but because the corrupt officers behind these individual cases aren’t vilified, but defended by the rest of the force.
People cannot trust officers who deflect the blame for their reprehensible actions, and instead scapegoat the “disrespectful” actions of their victims. Violent outbursts like this are never warranted from the police, especially not towards a schoolchild. Officers who demand respect from the public and refuse to give it back are deepening the imbalance of power between police and the public, and breeding fear and mistrust.
Respect is not owed to someone simply because they wear a badge; it is earned based on ethical deeds and composure. No person owes their authority figures any degree of respect without being treated humanely in return. It’s disgustingly hypocritical to tell this teenage girl that she should have “behaved better” when a police officer — her model for ethical behavior — handles minor disagreements with this degree of violence and immaturity.
Deputy Ben Fields was rightfully terminated, and should serve as an example that blatant brutality from the police will not be tolerated in this country. Officers should be respected, but never blindly — only if they act in a manner deserving of respect.
Megan Cole is a second-year literary journalism major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.