Perhaps you’ve seen the video of the King County, Wash., sheriff’s deputy dishing out a bit of the rough stuff on a 15-year-old girl. At 3:45 a.m. last November 29, the girl was arrested while riding as a passenger in her parents’ car, which had been reported stolen to police. The video shows Deputy Paul Schene, 31, and a second deputy escorting the girl into a holding cell. The girl, apparently at Schene’s request, takes off one of her shoes and, apparently not at Schene’s request, kicks it at him, striking him in the shin with it.
It seems fair to say that at that point Deputy Schene … lost it. The video shows him charging into the cell and striking the girl, then shoving her against the back wall before throwing her to the floor. After handcuffing her, he picks her up and takes her out of the cell while holding her by the hair. A detective who later reviewed the video reported the incident, and Schene was charged in King County District Court with misdemeanor assault. He has pleaded not guilty.
Ugly stuff, to be sure. But I suspect I’m not the only cop who has watched that video and thought, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Let me be clear on this point: Neither do I condone what Deputy Schene appears to have done in the video nor have I committed such acts myself in my long career as a police officer. But I understand the impulse.
Every police officer has had the experience. You come across a case of criminal wrongdoing, and the person you’ve arrested takes the position that you have neither the right nor the authority to cause him the burdensome inconvenience of having the law enforced at his expense. He proceeds to lecture you on the law, more particularly his knowledge and your ignorance of it. He tells you about his influential friends who will surely have you removed from your job or at least reassigned to some less desirable post. He offers his opinions on your appearance and your ancestry and your personal life, often to the point of accusing you of having an improper, dare I say Oedipal, relationship with your mother. And then, at some point during the booking process, he commits some overt act of provocation, even one as seemingly innocuous as kicking his shoe at you, and you have to decide: What now?
Deputy Schene, no doubt to his everlasting regret, made his choice. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he let his emotions make the choice for him, for as fleetingly satisfying as it may have been to knock the impudent girl around the cell for a bit, had he considered the consequences of his actions before undertaking them he surely would have chosen another course.
The typical police officer comes from a family that instills in him a respect for the law and for lawful authority, and early in his career he is surprised to encounter so many people in whom such a respect is lacking. In a matter of months he is no longer surprised to meet such people, having come to accept them as part of the landscape. But when he encounters one who is already, at the age of 15, so deficient in that respect that she feels at liberty to call him a “fat pig” after he has found her in a stolen car in the middle of the night, well, he can find that his fuse has been somewhat shortened.
But people rightfully expect better of police officers, and despite whatever provocation the girl may have committed, in reacting as he did Deputy Schene brought discredit to himself, his fellow deputies, and police officers everywhere. Now he needs to face the consequences.
But what should those consequences be? Schene is an eight-year veteran of the King County Sheriff’s Department, and without knowing anything else about him I can guess that during those eight years he has risked his life several times, most often without the slightest recognition by his superiors or the citizens he serves. What an injustice it would be if those eight years of service are overshadowed by thirty seconds of videotape.
I don’t suggest for a moment that Deputy Schene should escape punishment, but I would ask that his entire career be taken into account when that punishment is calculated.