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At what point can a citizen defend himself against an assault by a police officer?

Or, for that matter, what about a good Samaritan coming to the aid of a victim being beaten by someone who turns out to be a police officer?

I came across the following video from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) showing what appears to be a police officer assaulting, for no obvious reason, a member of the public. And at the moment, the victim of this assault has been charged with several crimes, yet the officer has not.

The officer is white. The victim, Anthony Promvongsa, is a Loatian-American.

This, following so closely on the heels of the acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez in the killing of Philando Castile and a recent visit to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, has got me thinking more about the relationship of the public to law enforcement. Specifically, at what point is a member of the public allowed to defend him- or herself against an assault by a police officer?

Let’s think about a hypothetical. Let’s say that I somehow find myself facing a random bigot and who attacks me without warning. What happens to me when it turns out that the random bigot is a police officer? Do I get to claim self-defense as my defense, and just as important, does that defense have any chance of keeping me out of prison for refusing to let myself be beaten?

How about if I’m facing a man who does identify himself as a police officer but starts punching or kicking me before I have a chance to respond to his instructions (as appears to have happened to Promvongsa above)? What level of self-defense am I allowed to do before I risk getting shot, or going to prison?

Where is the line drawn? Do I have to stand there and take whatever beating this hypothetical bigoted officer has decided to give me, or do I get to make a self-defense claim in court because I was being assaulted? For that matter, is there a point at which a district attorney won’t even bring charges against me for defending myself?

Or, as is more likely the case for me, what happens if I come across someone getting beaten up by an random bigot who, after I’ve stepped in, turns out to be a police officer? Do I go to jail for assaulting an officer who was beating the crap out of someone else?

If there’s no point at which I am allowed to defend himself, if there’s no way I can claim self-defense against excessive force, if there’s no line over which this hypothetical officer could step that would get him charged for assaulting me instead of me being charged for acting in self-defense, then that means our police aren’t actually law enforcement anymore. They’re lawless paramilitaries masquerading as law enforcement.

As an educated white male, the chance I’ll ever face something like what Philando Castile or Anthony Promvongsa or any other minority faces on a daily basis is extremely low. But I could totally see myself stepping in to help someone else who is being attacked. The two men who were murdered on the train in Portland could have been me, because there’s no question that, in that same situation, I would have told the white supremacist to back off and leave the girls alone.

I know good cops. And I can’t imagine the good cops I know being OK with what happened to Castile, or what the video shows happening to Promvongsa. But there are bad cops out there, and there are bad district attorneys, and bad mayors, and even bad laws. And while I’m certainly not going to go looking for trouble, but if I stumble across trouble, I know myself well enough to know that I couldn’t just take a beating, or just stand by and allow someone else to be beaten.

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