Sunday, September 14, 2014

Not Zen 127: Governance

c. Pakkin Leung via Wikimedia Commons

"How could this have happened?" the mother of one child asked the school principal. She wiped her face with a napkin.

The fight had occurred over a ball, as many small incidents had before. A girl on one team kicked a red ball out of the field of play. In the shouting and confusion, no one on the other team ran to pick it up. A different group of children grabbed it. They didn't look at the game going on. They began throwing the ball to one another. At that point, a boy on the fielding team ran up to take it away.

The boy holding the ball refused to give it up. The two contestants wrestled over it. They shouted. All the children in the area began yelling at others or calling for help.

It was the kind of playground scuffle that usually got broken up by teachers. However, the teachers in the school had recently been forbidden to intervene. They didn't pull the boys apart. Instead, due to what seemed to be a fortunate circumstance, they requested police assistance.

The two police officers were visiting the building to give a talk. One of them got the call to action when a teacher rushed into his room, shouted there was a 'terrible fight' on the playground and that he was needed. The officer, as he'd been trained to do, put in a call to his backup before he went to assist.

When he arrived on the playground, he was surprised to find the fight still going on. A minute had passed and he was aware that even a minute is a long time for a tussle between children. He was more surprised when he reached out to the boys rolling on the ground. They were big for their age, the size of small adults, and strong. They knocked him off of his feet.

That was when the second officer arrived on the scene.

The accounts of the witnesses differed wildly at this point. But even the police agreed that this was when they responded as if the children were adults. First, they each tackled a combatant. One of the boys grabbed at the female officer's weapons. The officer used a stick to beat him back. Both boys tried to defend themselves from the police sticks. Both were beaten further and a teacher who tried to intervene received a head wound from the second officer. The children were further beaten, handcuffed, and arrested. The police filed charges against them for assault, battery, and resisting arrest.

Although the children were taken to a hospital along with the wounded teacher, armed guards accompanied them. When the parents went to see their children, they were turned away by the guards and told to see the school principal, who had recently arrived.

"They're children," insisted the parents to the principal. "They're not adults. Children."

"They've been charged as adults."

"How is that even possible? It's simply not true. How are they allowed to suddenly decide that our children are grown up when no one else has?"

The mother of the larger of the two boys pointed out that he was mentally challenged and normally gentle. He had never been involved in a playground incident before.

That evening, pictures of the beaten children appeared in the news. Within an hour, the guards were called back to the police station. Nurses admitted the parents to their children's rooms. The next day, charges were dropped. Instead of talking about how wrong the teachers and children had behaved, the police spokesman at a press conference said the department would focus on what the officers had done wrong.

The larger child had been admitted unconscious. He remained in that state due, doctors stated, to head trauma. Two days later, he died in his hospital bed with his mother by his side.

She and the principal returned to the hospital several times to visit the remaining, recovering boy and his parents. They were surprised to overhear, over a news broadcast on the hospital television, that a source within the police department said the officers in the school child beating had done nothing wrong. The investigation of the incident had been conducted quickly and would soon exonerate both officers.

The parents and principal asked to speak to someone from the department. It took two days but the Deputy Chief of Police agreed to come to the hospital for a talk. He admitted to them that the news leak was correct. The investigation had found nothing against the officers.

"They've done nothing wrong? Nothing? They killed my boy."

"They acted as they were trained to do."

"They used deadly force against unarmed children."

"That's unfortunate. We'll change our training to prevent this sort of tragedy. But again, they did as they were trained."

"Then the whole department should be punished."

"How?" The Deputy Chief chuckled. He glanced at their faces and took a deep breath. "That isn't practical. There's no way to punish the police department without hurting public safety."

As she shook her head and fell into tears, the school principal spoke up.

"We punish schools when they perform poorly. Why don't we do it to other public departments?"

"How, smart guy? Shut down police stations?"

"We could do that as easily as we shut down schools. Why not? But there's another way. You could do it personally. You could de-fund the job pleasantries. Take away the department coffee machines or your rewards program. Withhold the fanciest equipment from your new fitness center. Take out the music player."

The Deputy Chief started to say something but he paused.

"That sounds good to me," said the father of the recovering boy. "We should strip away the luxuries for law enforcement organizations when they misuse their force. Give it back later as they improve."

"But …"

"Just as an individual is punished for misusing martial arts and hurting others," the principal continued, "a law enforcement organization should be punished for misusing force."


  1. This is a hard subject to tackle. If the police didn't intervene and let the children fight it out and the child had still died, wouldn't they say it was the police's fault for not breaking up the fight? If the police had let the children beat them and use force against them and then one of them sustained horrible injuries from the incident is this the right course? Should the officer have let the child have her weapon? If the child had then used the weapon would the officer be liable? Should a child be treated as an adult when they commit an adult type crime such as assault? I think the answer depends on who you ask.

  2. Yes, I think that often - perhaps usually - there is no outcome that the police can achieve to satisfy everyone. One of the illusions of hindsight is knowing the facts and re-deciding calmly, something that people in the midst of a situation can't do.

  3. In a way, this is meant to be a companion piece to two others, The Sign Painters ( and Same Person (