Cook: Blinded by the baton

Cook: Blinded by the baton

October 1st, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Adam Tatum is a human being.

We tend to forget that. Many of us remember his criminality, trumpeting that he was high on drugs on the much-publicized June night when Chattanooga police officers went to the Salvation Army halfway house to apprehend him.

That he had a knife, and was holding it to the neck of another inmate there.

That he resisted arrest -- continuously -- and was super-villain able to throw off the Taser barbs fired into his chest.

"A thug," readers said.

Viewing him through this lens excuses the 40-some-odd baton strikes that he received that night. It forgives the Taser, the pepper spray, the punches to the face, the broken legs. It's OK, because he's a thug.

Yet when we see Tatum as fully human, the ground under us shifts. As a human being, Tatum possesses an inherent worth and inalienable rights. Simply by being alive, he is of great value and worth.

Put it religiously: Tatum is unconditionally loved and infinitely valued. Nothing less than a child of God.

Yet the same is true of Adam Cooley and Sean Emmer.

Some of us forget that. We only see their batons and Tasers. We refuse to accept that such anger and fear could be part of our interior landscape as well. We have the luxury of judging without ever being called into such a situation.

The opposite of calling Tatum a thug is to call them monsters.

Both sides distort the other, and the truth is never discussed.

On a June night in 2012, the three crashed into one another in the midnight trauma of the Salvation Army halfway house on McCallie Avenue. Their collision -- Tatum an inmate there; Emmer and Cooley two of the Chattanooga police officers called in to restrain him -- was recorded on video and has become ingrained in the collective consciousness of our city.

Last week, an administrative law judge ruled that Emmer and Cooley -- who were fired for their actions that night -- should have their jobs returned to them. It is the same message sent by a grand jury that earlier refused to indict the officers and a federal investigation that refused to press charges.

"Certainly, the use of force and the injuries sustained by Mr. Tatum were not ideal but neither were they dictated by the conduct of officers Emmer and Cooley," wrote Judge Kim Summers.

For days this summer, lawyers and experts argued over the rightness of Emmer and Cooley's actions, citing policy and procedure to the point of tragi-comic proportions: was the 37th baton strike, for example, done in an appropriate way on a procedurally correct spot on Tatum's body?

It was all seduction: our conscience and morality and common sense were slowly put to sleep under the anesthesia of policy-talk and expert testimony. At one point, I found myself, morally, nodding OK: the officers did nothing wrong.

Yet how is it ever acceptable -- when you have the whole weight of a police department behind you -- to beat someone 40 times who is passively resisting?

"Even with the benefit of hindsight, no one has been able to offer a better approach for resolving the situation," Summers wrote.

This is completely untrue.

People are trained all the time, all over the world, to respond to high-stress incidents without choke-holds or batons. A different toolbox is used, as methods of violent force are replaced by nonviolent methods and psychological tactics.

We have invented smart phones and 3D printers and spaceships to Mars. To say that we have neither the wisdom nor capability of being able to talk -- not beat -- Tatum into submission only continues the dangerous myth that we are each only slightly better than the beasts, and the only way to coerce is through baton force.

We must lay a new foundation, one that never forgets the full humanity of the other, regardless of the situation.

"Hate is the real problem," writes peace scholar Michael Nagler.

There will be more men with knives, and officers will continue to arm themselves. The greater threat is found in our amnesia: the way we forget who we really are.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.