On Nov. 12 of last year, Arizona State University professor Ersula Ore filed a $2 million dollar claim against the school’s police department, alleging false arrest, assault, battery, and violation of due process. The lawsuit came after Ore was stopped by Police Officer Ferrin for crossing a closed street on campus. When she refused to produce ID and questioned what she had done wrong, Officer Ferrin physically accosted her and then detained her for aggravated assault, jaywalking, and resisting arrest. Last month, an independent investigation concluded that Officer Ferrin did not have good reason to arrest her, as Ore had yielded to traffic and was not required to produce ID. Indeed, all of the charges against Ore were eventually dropped, with the exception of resisting arrest. The report further noted that Officer Ferrin has a history of acting inappropriately and unprofessionally. Then, following notification of ASU’s intent to terminate him, Ferrin resigned on Feb. 16 of this year.
Before considering the deeper implications of this incident, I’d like to present a brief summary of the events that lead to Ore’s arrest. Video footage went viral due to the excessive force with which she was treated. In the footage, onlookers can be heard protesting her treatment and suggesting that the officer “keep [his] hands off of her.” Ore, in an official statement released by her attorney, explained that she felt disrespected by Ferrin. Indeed, many of his comments are derogatory and condescending. For instance, he asked her “Are you aware that this is a street?” and informed her, “If you don’t understand the law, I’m explaining the law to you.” Then, the conflict became physical as Ore refused to consent to an arrest she believed was unlawful. During the altercation, Ore’s skirt became hiked up around her waist. When Ferrin reached out to pull down her skirt, Ore understandably misinterpreted his action as an attempt to reach under her clothing. She kicked his shin to deflect further inappropriate contact. After repeatedly ordering her to put her hands behind her back, Ferrin threatened to “slam” her onto the police car—a threat he followed through with shortly thereafter.
In her statement, Ore explains that she felt scared. Despite protesting her innocence, she pled guilty to avoid the risk of having a felony on her record, which would affect her employment, right to vote, and right to bear arms. Sadly, our current criminal justice system often relies on fear of severe punishment to exact cooperation. In 2010, nearly nine out of every ten cases ended in plea bargaining. In other words, nine out of ten people would rather plead guilty to a charge than fight it, presumably to avoid harsher sentencing. This cannot be considered justice.
That law enforcement often relies on intimidation to make people afraid and cooperative has dangerous implications.
Officer Ferrin is probably not a bad person. He is a Boy Scout, LDS missionary, and father. However, nobody is perfect or immune to error, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. For instance, the independent investigation revealed that Ferrin takes a “rigid, power-based approach to law enforcement and [demonstrates] unwillingness to exercise discretion and sound judgment.” In fact, a similar incident occurred five days before Ore’s arrest. Afterwards, Ferrin was counseled to exercise better discernment and good communication, advice he apparently did not heed.
This is not surprising. Incidents like this are all too frequent in The United States. Law enforcement officers rarely face serious consequences, even when their actions cause innocent civilians to die. However, in saying this I do not mean to condemn all police officers and government agents as immoral or evil; while there exist bad apples in every bunch, the real problem lies in a flawed criminal justice system that does not incentivize police officers to follow the same laws they are entrusted to enforce. The ways in which the state encourages law enforcement agents to become blinded by power remain evident in Ferrin’s recent statements. Despite committing multiple ASU policy violations and having five citizen complaints against him (more than twice the number of any officer), Ferrin still refuses to admit to any wrongdoing, nor has he faced serious sanctions. He was allowed to resign on his own terms, and even if Ore’s lawsuit succeeds, none of the money will come from Ferrin’s wallet.
In short, there exists no reason to believe that government actors are more altruistic than the average individual. Giving certain people legal power over others will wreak disastrous consequences if that power is not strongly contained by checks and balances. For example, when police officers break the law on the job, they should have to face jail time or other appropriate punishment. Yet, Officer Ferrin’s actions represent an increasingly popular attitude—whether consciously recognized or not—that a government-issued badge grants ultimate authority and impunity.
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