By now you’ve seen the video of police in Hammond, Ind., smashing a car window and using a Taser on Jamal Jones in the car while children were in the backseat, screaming with fear. It was frightening.
And there are probably some people out there who looked at that video and thought Jones must have been a felon or menace to society—and that the cops had no choice.
But that wasn’t even close.
The family was pulled over for a seat belt violation. A seat belt. That’s it. Nothing else. Yet Jones wound up having a Taser used on him. And the problem—particularly for black folks—is that this is all too common in America.
Proportionately, black and brown Americans are more likely to get pulled over by the police than white Americans. Traffic stops involving minorities, and the tickets and fees generated, go to fund too many court systems in the United States—we can look at Ferguson, Mo., as an example of that. The furor and tension from protests in Ferguson came about not only from the shooting of Michael Brown but also from already-existing distrust of the police department, which stops black citizens at alarming rates, thrusting them into the court system, with no end in sight for fees that must be paid.
Jamal Jones is heard on that video asking for “white shirts,” who are supervisors. And Jones had the right to ask for a supervisor to come to the scene, especially given his level of fear and distrust of the officers. Jones and his family told the officers that they were afraid of them and they did not want to get out of the car because of their fear. And, frankly, they had reason to be afraid, because the officers obviously had no hesitation using a dangerous object to break through their car window—even at the risk of hitting young children with flying glass—and using a Taser on Jones before yanking him out of the vehicle. The only good thing about this incident is that it was caught on video.
In this case, the police officers had several options to handle the situation. They could have yelled over their bullhorn for the vehicle occupants to put on their seat belts. They could have given Lisa Mahone—the driver—a ticket and then sent the family on its way. The officers could have honored Jones’ request for a higher-ranking officer to come to the scene. Instead, police escalated the situation, and they were the ones who turned it into a violent and emotionally troubling experience, especially for the kids in the car.
Officers are there to serve and protect citizens, not to bully and harass. And black citizens are just as entitled to be served and protected as any other citizens. These officers, though, were on a mission to bully and harass, and the sad part is that the law may be on their side—at least regarding the requests they made to see Jones’ ID—but not for using a Taser on him or smashing his car window. That’s totally shameful behavior for those wearing a badge, and they should be disciplined—immediately.
What’s also disturbing is that the official statement from the Hammond Police Department described the situation as one in which Jones made a sudden movement and the officers broke the glass to subdue him for “officer safety.” But “officer safety” is one of those code words used as a catchall for police harassment. Luckily for the family, this video was recording every word and movement and showed that the officers’ version of events wasn’t as clear-cut as they’d like us to believe.
In the aftermath of Michael Brown’s and John Crawford’s killings, black men are increasingly wary in interactions with law enforcement—and unless they’re oblivious to the now almost weekly reports of black men being subjected to police brutality, police should understand why. In Hammond the driver and passenger of the car kept telling the officers who stopped them that they were afraid to get out of their car.
And, obviously, with the behavior these officers displayed, they had a reason to be.
Eric Guster is a civil rights and criminal-defense trial lawyer. He appears regularly on HLN, MSNBC, Fox and CNN as a legal analyst and commentator. Follow him on Twitter. Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.