Jurisprudence

We Need to Cool Down About Police Officers Getting Doused With Water

A shoulder of a NYPD officer shows a NYPD patch.
The fact that higher-ups view officers who do their jobs with restraint not as examples but embarrassments speaks volumes.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In a video posted to Instagram, two soaked New York City police officers trudge away from a group of people, wiping their faces. As they walk past, a young man upends a bucket of water over one officer’s head. The officers barely react. “Oh my God, they laughing at them,” the woman recording the video says.

Police department officials and New York lawmakers aren’t laughing. State politicians have been in an uproar after multiple videos of civilians spraying traffic cops with a water bottle and dumping buckets of water on officers went viral. In the aftermath of one video that showed officers going about their day after being doused, the New York Police Department’s highest-ranking uniformed officer suggested that his colleagues were in the wrong profession because … they showed restraint? “Any cop who thinks that’s all right, that they can walk away from something like that, maybe should reconsider whether or not this is the profession for them,” said Terence A. Monahan, the chief of department. “We don’t take that.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who took five years to suggest that the officer who killed Eric Garner using an illegal chokehold deserved to be fired, echoed this rhetoric. Cuomo suggested that walking away from the so-called water-bucket attacks made the NYPD look “impotent” and called the cops’ behavior “one of the most disturbing and embarrassing actions I’ve seen.” The Sergeants Benevolent Association shared one video, proclaiming “NYPD Cops are in DANGER!” and claimed, without citing any evidence, that water buckets “can contain ACID, BLEACH or other CHEMICALS.” The SBA has said the water dousings warrant the resignation of NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill “before we get another cop killed.”

The fact that higher-ups view officers who do their jobs with restraint not as examples but embarrassments speaks volumes. Officers who choose to walk away are conducting themselves much better than those who lose their cool when they’re not shown deference.
Overreacting has led officers to hurt the people they’re meant to protect, from ramming a police car into a bicyclist who ignored a traffic signal to putting Garner in a chokehold for selling loose cigarettes. Good policing, especially in communities where trust in police has been steadily eroded, requires dealing with the occasional indignity. De-escalatory policing, which instructs officers to avoid using force as much as possible, is widely recognized to be an effective way to defuse tense situations and build trust.

Some politicians are charging ahead with the opposite approach. Citing a “culture of blatant disrespect,” two Republican lawmakers have proposed a new bill in the New York State Assembly that would classify the crime of dousing an on-duty police officer as a Class E felony, which would carry a minimum of 1½ years behind bars and a possible maximum sentence of four years. Democrats are not backing the legislation, but it’s nonetheless become a talking point in right-wing media. To be clear, dousers are not currently getting away scot-free. One Brooklyn man who turned himself in after being caught on camera dousing two cops with a bucket of water was released on $3,500 bail after being charged with obstructing governmental administration, criminal mischief, and criminal tampering. The last charge was for allegedly damaging a $250 police body camera. The proposed law would ratchet up these penalties considerably and attach the lifelong consequences associated with felony convictions to what is in most cases a rude but harmless prank. If a water dousing did turn violent, there are already laws on the books that mandate harsh penalties—two to 15 years in prison—for menacing or assaulting a police officer. There is no need for new legislation here. The laws we already have are more than enough.

This isn’t the first time lawmakers have tried to overcriminalize perceived disrespect for police officers. In 2018, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Protect and Serve Act, which would make it a federal crime to attack a police officer despite the numerous protections that already exist. The Senate version, which was reintroduced in the 2019 legislative session, classified any attack against law enforcement officials as a hate crime, effectively placing a chosen career in the same category as race or gender.

Throwing water on police falls is akin to other embarrassing but mostly innocuous forms of protest, like tossing milkshakes or eggs at politicians. Anti-fascist protesters in the U.K have thrown milkshakes at far-right figures from Nigel Farage to anti-Muslim activist Tommy Robinson. As Eater’s Jenny Zhang writes, “To throw one is nonviolent, but the results are humiliating; press charges against the thrower (which many have), and you look like a fragile and bratty fool.” Black people in heavily policed communities have to endure their own routine humiliations at the hands of the police, like allegedly being forced to freestyle on demand or being wrongly arrested and handcuffed on the way to work. It should go without saying that no one “deserves” to be doused in water for doing their job—and officers who walk away from such a dousing without escalating are doing that job well. It’s also worth saying, as we think about which crimes get punished and how that punishment gets meted out, that taxpayers don’t deserve to pay $108 million in one year for civil rights settlements over misconduct committed by police officers doing their jobs badly.