Politics & Policy

The Spring Valley Arrest Video Isn’t Disturbing: Here’s Why

(Image via YouTube)

The latest viral video of alleged “police brutality” is remarkably short and devoid of context. According to cell-phone video – apparently shot by students at Columbia, S.C.’s Spring Valley High School – a “student resource officer,” Senior Deputy Ben Fields, approaches an unidentified female student. After she refuses to move from her desk, he grabs her, yanks the desk over, and appears to drag, then throw her to the front of the classroom, where he apparently places her in handcuffs. The relevant portion of the video is below:

No one was injured in the fracas (UPDATE: This is now disputed. The sheriff’s office said the student “might have had a rug burn,” but her lawyer is claiming worse injuries — requiring her to wear a cast on her arm), but the media immediately identified it as an example of a white police officer brutalizing a black youth. Vox breathlessly said the video “shows what happens when you put cops in schools” and called it an example of the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Within a day, local officials had requested an FBI and Department of Justice investigation, and the media feeding frenzy was fully underway.

#share#I have a different perspective. After watching and re-watching the incident, I keep coming to the same conclusion: This is what happens when a person resists a lawful order from a police officer to move (UPDATE: CNN is now reporting that a third video shows the student hitting the officer in the face when he initially put his hands on her). Unless the school is willing to have one student commandeer the classroom indefinitely, the officer has few options beyond physical force — and the use of physical force is rarely pretty to see. In this instance, the use of force was decisive, brief, and did not physically harm the student.

While I hardly claim to have grown up (or live) on the wrong side of the tracks, I’ve seen multiple police interventions in my 46 years on this planet — including in my own high school in the 1980s — and I’ve never seen the police be gentle when a person resists arrest. The use of physical force is never elegant, it’s always potentially dangerous, and it’s always easy to critique from a distance. Lawlessness typically leaves a police officer with options that simply don’t look good on camera.

As for the Vox critique of police officers in public schools – which writer German Lopez called “outsourcing discipline to the police” – let’s not forget that in this instance the school appealed to the officer only after a teacher and an administrator failed to get results. I’ve known multiple public-school teachers who were grateful for police assistance after spending years getting punched, kicked, bitten, and otherwise physically abused by their students. I distinctly remember seeing my own teachers tossed around like rag dolls by angry students during raging hallway brawls. At some schools, even small children will attack and harm their teachers.

The fact that the incident didn’t look good on camera doesn’t make his actions wrong.

While I support body cameras and, of course, support the rather obvious right of the public to record the police, videos like the one from Spring Valley show how subjective our snap judgments can be. Some watched the video and were immediately outraged. Others simply saw an officer handling a student who was resisting arrest. Experts from both sides will no doubt weigh in, with some officers defending Fields and others proclaiming they could and would have handled the situation with less force. Yet, at the end of the day, the most likely outcome is the one feared by FBI director James Comey, that the fear of “viral videos” is like a “chill wind blowing through American law enforcement.”

America’s opinion and law-making classes – walled off in doorman-fronted buildings, gated communities, and generally growing up in the best educational environments – are making judgments about behaviors and police reactions that are utterly alien to their experience. Having little to no exposure to physical conflict, they have no idea how difficult it is to move an unwilling person, and having blessedly lived in the absence of physical fear, they have no real idea how a human being responds to physical danger. But that won’t stop them from opining about police conduct, condemning cops because they’re insufficiently graceful when exerting physical force on a defiant person, and then being self-righteously certain that dissent from their authoritative view is motivated by hate and bigotry.

The arrested student at Spring Valley High School should have left her seat when her teacher demanded that she leave. She should have left when the administrator made the same demand. She should have left when Fields made his first, polite requests. She had no right to stay. She had no right to end classroom instruction with her defiance. Fields was right to move her, and he did so without hurting her (disputed now, see above). The fact that the incident didn’t look good on camera doesn’t make his actions wrong. Unless additional evidence emerges, the Spring Valley video is going viral for all the wrong reasons.

In other words – to use a police cliché – move along. There’s truly not much to see here.

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