Lessons From NYPD v. Uber Driver: 'You're Not Important Enough'

04/03/2015 12:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2015

The video of a New York City police detective verbally abusing an Uber driver has gone viral, and the public has reacted with anger and horror. After Ferguson, Staten Island, and other reports of community conflict with the police, we see the video as part of a pattern of police misconduct.

But is even more going on here? Something we all can learn from? The video shows the stereotypical law enforcement power trip. But it might also provide a moment to ponder whether you have been mistreated, or perhaps mistreated another person, because of an assumption that there will be no consequence.

We all have witnessed abuse without necessarily recognizing it. The customer who screams at a waitress because a steak is overdone. The bus driver who yells at a passenger who doesn't have exact change. The bank teller who speaks disdainfully to a person whose account is overdrawn. We think, "What a jerk." But it's more profound than that. The perpetrator is stripping another human being of his or her dignity. And this happens every minute of every day.

The message sent in all these contexts is precisely what the detective screamed at the Uber driver: "You're not important enough." Not important enough for me to try to control myself. Not important enough for me to fear punishment or retaliation. In the here and now, I hold all the power. You, poor schmuck, have none.

As the police detective learned, the abuser isn't always right. The Uber driver and his passenger had social media, a force that no amount of gunfire can overcome, on their side. But knowing our power should not control our behavior. We should know better, and we can do better. A bad day can destroy our patience -- but we can fight that.

Police officers hold power because of their weapons and their authority to press criminal charges. But almost all of us exercise power without even thinking about it. It's surprisingly easy to exercise it in a good way. Showing respect and appreciation has a snowball effect.

Detective Cherry, the police officer currently undergoing public excoriation, needs to make the most basic first step. He needs to apologize, loudly and clearly, not only to the driver but to the public. Apologies are tough for toddlers to master, and I am guessing they are hard on Detective Cherry. But right now it's his only shot at redemption.