Saturday, August 01, 2009

Footnote to the preceding

I was going to post this last night but changed my mind because it didn't really seem sufficiently relevant - but a comment from the estimable Tgirsch of LeanLeft changed my mind and maybe it will serve some purpose.

Writing of the Gates case, he said
I really don't think this was a case of racial profiling, as it's been made out to be. I think it's a case of a cop being an asshole. Gates may have been an asshole, too, for all I know, but being an asshole isn't a crime, and if a cop busted into MY house accusing me of being there illegally, I imagine I'd be an asshole, too.
I've had run-ins with cops - and I have to say that in a couple of those cases it dawned on the cop that they were in the wrong and I found it amusing to watch them find a way to back out without backing down - that is, without admitting error - which usually consisted of leaving me with some command to do or not do something I would or wouldn't have done anyway.

But I recall two fairly recent occasions that seem relevant here because they could have escalated but didn't. And I think the reason neither did is significant.

The first was a few years ago. I had driven to another state to visit a friend but for various reasons - including that traffic was much lighter than I anticipated - I arrived hours early, at about 2pm. My friend had told me she would not be home until around 6pm as she would be visiting her parents that day. So with nowhere to go and no way to reach her as I knew neither her parents' address nor their phone number, I got a soda and settled in my car to wait.

About an hour later, maybe a little more, a police cruiser pulled up next to my car and two cops asked me to get out of my car and produce ID, which I did. It was all very professional and after a time they said fine and one of them actually apologized for having to bother me. I laughed and said "A strange man sitting alone in a car with out-of-state plates on a street where children are coming home from school? I was surprised you weren't here sooner."

And it was literally true: I had been expecting them to come from the moment I settled in.

The other case was last fall. My wife and I had just recently moved into our new place. One night we had some trouble with the keys which resulted in my aiming my car's headlights onto the lawn and my wife waving a flashlight around. We got in but a little while later there was a knock at the door which proved to be two cops, one at the door, the other holding back as backup. The cop at the door said they had gotten a call from a neighbor about suspicious activity at the place and asked if I could prove it was my home.

I showed my driver's license which had my photo and the address. He looked at it, said fine, sorry to bother you but we had to check it out and we chatted amiably for a half-minute or so which concluded with me saying "be glad it worked out this way" and him saying that he hoped his whole night would go this way.

In each case I was calm and cooperative. Why? Certainly not because I was intimidated or fearful - but because in each case I understood what was going on. In the first case I was expecting to be checked out and I knew why; in the other the cop straight away, first thing, gave me a sound and legitimate reason for asking for ID. (I should note in fairness that in the first case the cops did give a reason; they said they had gotten a call about "a strange man in a car" or something like that. In that case, though, even if they hadn't given a reason I would have known why they were there. Still, they did the right thing by telling me why they came by.)

The point of both of these stories is that had conditions been different, the outcome might have been different. If the cops hadn't acted professionally, I might have reacted differently. If the cop who came to the door had come on aggressively and just demanded ID without saying why, I know that my reaction would have been one of "Excuse me? Just who the hell do you think you are?" (Actually, I think my exact words would have been more like "Uh, why?" And I would expect the answer to be produced before my ID was.)

I don't know how Crowley came on to Gates. Maybe he was gruff, brusque, arrogant, even threatening. Or maybe he was polite and professional. I don't know and I'm not judging him here. What I do know is that too many cops are too ready to think that domination is the name of the game and offering explanations undermines that domination by putting the other person on a similar level to themselves.

That is foolish and dangerous yet all too common. I believe nothing is more likely to make what should be a professional, calm encounter into a confrontation than giving people the feeling that they are being subjected to arbitrary authority - being, that is, bullied. Put another way, I think former DC Deputy Chief of Police Robert Klotz was wrong: The frequent triggering event for confrontations is not "contempt of cop" but "contempt of citizen."

Which again raises the question: In what kind of society do we wish to live?

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