All it took for an off-duty police officer to pull a gun on Jose Arreola was a $1.19 pack of Mentos.
According to security footage of the encounter at a convenience store in Buena Park, California, Arreola went into the store on March 16, asked how much the mints were, and began paying for them. As he was getting his change back, he put the mints in his pocket.
An off-duty cop, who has yet to be identified, stepped in. “Hey, give that back. I’m a police officer,” he said, brandishing his gun.
Arreola, clearly startled, repeatedly said, “I paid for that.”
After a brief back-and-forth, the officer told the cashier, “He tried stealing that from you.” The cashier then confirmed three times that Arreola actually paid for the mints. The officer began a mea culpa: “My apologies, sir. My apologies.” Arreola took his candy and left.
“The hardest thing for me was, believe it or not, it wasn’t really the gun,” Arreola told a local CBS affiliate. “It was his arrogance, his way of talking to me. … He treated me like a piece of trash.”
The incident has drawn widespread attention following a report by Tony Saavedra for the Orange County Register.
As Daniel Politi noted at Slate, the video “appears to illustrate how police officers can overreact to what they perceive as tiny slights and often have a hard time accepting when they’re wrong.” It also shows how even minor transgressions can escalate into potentially deadly encounters.
Arreola told a local NBC affiliate that he believes he was racially profiled.
The Buena Park Police Department is investigating the incident.
“I want you to know that after I watched the video I found it to be disturbing, as I’m sure it was to you,” Buena Park Police Chief Corey Sianez said in a statement. “However, because there is an ongoing personnel investigation and potential litigation pending against the city, I am unable to discuss the details of our investigation.”
These kinds of incidents are serious, not just because they can get victims carelessly killed but also because they can foster even more distrust in the police. That distrust, in turn, can lead to more violence within a community.
Videos of police doing bad things foster more distrust — and perhaps crime
There’s a longstanding criminological concept at play: “legal cynicism.” The idea is that the government will have a much harder time enforcing the law when large segments of the population don’t trust the government, the police, or the laws.
This is a major explanation for why predominantly minority communities tend to have more crime than other communities: After centuries of neglect and abuse, black and brown Americans are simply much less likely to turn to police for help — and that may lead a small but significant segment of these communities to resort to its own means, including violence, to solve interpersonal conflicts.
There’s research to back this up. A 2016 study from sociologists Matthew Desmond of Harvard, Andrew Papachristos of Yale, and David Kirk of Oxford looked at 911 calls in Milwaukee after incidents of police brutality hit the news.
They found that after the 2004 police beating of Frank Jude, 17 percent fewer 911 calls were made in the following year compared with the number of calls that would have been made had the Jude beating never happened. More than half of the effect came from fewer calls in black neighborhoods. And the effect persisted for more than a year, even after the officers involved in the beating were punished. Researchers found similar impacts on local 911 calls after other high-profile incidents of police violence.
But crime still happened in these neighborhoods. As 911 calls dropped, researchers also found a rise in homicides. They noted that “the spring and summer that followed Jude’s story were the deadliest in the seven years observed in our study.”
That suggests that people were simply dealing with crime themselves. And although the researchers couldn’t definitively prove it, that might mean civilians took to their own, sometimes violent, means to protect themselves when they couldn’t trust police to stop crime and violence.
“An important implication of this finding is that publicized cases of police violence not only threaten the legitimacy and reputation of law enforcement,” the researchers wrote, but “they also — by driving down 911 calls — thwart the suppression of law breaking, obstruct the application of justice, and ultimately make cities as a whole, and the black community in particular, less safe.”
That’s why, especially in the context of racial disparities in police use of force, experts say it’s important that police own up to their mistakes and take transparent steps to fix them.
“This is what folks who rail against the focus on police violence — and pull up against that, community violence — get wrong,” David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College, previously told me. “What those folks simply don’t understand is that when communities don’t trust the police and are afraid of the police, then they will not and cannot work with police and within the law around issues in their own community. And then those issues within the community become issues the community needs to deal with on their own — and that leads to violence.”
Cases like Arreola’s help feed into the distrust — by signaling to minority communities that police aren’t there to protect them but are instead likely to harass them and use excessive force. In that way, these cases make it a lot harder for police to achieve the basic roles they’re meant to fulfill.
For more on American policing’s problems and how to fix them, read Vox’s explainer.