There was a time in my life that I wanted to be a cop more than anything in the world. I even considered moving to Philadelphia before I was 21 because you could join the police force at 18. If I remember correctly, there was a one year residence requirement which kind of killed that idea because I was around 20 at the time.
One of the things that changed my mind about wanting to be a cop was the cops I met in my Administration of Justice classes at the local community college. This was during the late 60’s and early 70’s, and public attitudes about cops took a dramatic turn for the worse after the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968.
In one class I brought up something I had heard on the radio about an experiment where the researchers took a group of young people with perfect driving records, and divided them into two groups. One of the groups they put pro-police bumper stickers on the car, and on the other anti-cop stickers. It wasn’t long before all the teens with anti-police stickers had received a ticket for one thing or another, with some getting multiple citations. I don’t think one cop in the class saw this as evidence of police wrongdoing, saying instead that if you follow virtually any driver, they would all most likely deserve a ticket. They never considered the fact that none of the driver’s of the cars with pro-police stickers received so much as one ticket.
I have been thinking about this as it relates to the whole “Gates” affair, and to cops in general. For the last several years I have worked in Oakland, California, and for many people who live there they see the cops as no different than the gang thugs who cause murder in mayhem in their city. The only difference is that one side carries a badge. There were even protest walks in support of the guy who recently murdered four cops in Oakland. How can this be?
One day while I was riding my bike on the sidewalk from my place of work to the BART station, I passed by four Oakland motorcycle cops standing near the entrance to the Oakland Coliseum. One of the cop’s, a woman, told me I could not ride my bicycle on the sidewalk, and I stopped and said, “Have you ever ridden a bicycle on Hegenberger Road?” She said I could either ride along the other side of the street, or walk the bike, but I could not continue to ride on the sidewalk. When I got home, I did some research and found out that it is not illegal to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk in Oakland, except in heavily foot-trafficked sidewalks such as downtown. But more than that, I wondered why this woman cop didn’t have something better to do than hassle someone as harmless as a bicycle rider, especially with Oakland having one of wost crime rates in the nation.
Personally, I believe that a certain type of person is drawn to being a cop, and in many cases they are not very different than the criminals they are supposed to protect us from. Now I know, this is not true of all cops, but it is true of an awful lot of them, and this is why we have gotten the wrong message vis-a-vis the Henry Louis Gates “teaching moment.” The best commentary on the incident I have read is by Radley Balko, who states:
The conversation we ought to be having in response to the July 16 incident and its heated aftermath isn’t about race, it’s about police arrest powers, and the right to criticize armed agents of the government.
Radley, a senior editor at Reason magazine, cites the following case of a personal friend and their run in with the police, and is an example of what would have happened to me had I continued to ride on the sidewalk.
In a locally prominent case from April 2008, a friend of mine named Brooke Oberwetter was arrested at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. for, essentially, dancing. Oberwetter and other libertarians had gathered at the memorial to quirkily celebrate Jefferson’s birthday by silently dancing to their iPods. When National Park Police asked the group to leave, Oberwetter hesitated, stopping to ask one officer to explain what laws or rules they had violated. He arrested her, on the charge of “interfering with an agency function,” a vague charge similar to Gates’ alleged public disturbance. Oberwetter was never tried, though she was handcuffed and detained for several hours. She has since filed a civil rights lawsuit against the officer and the Park Police. Oberwetter wasn’t profiled: She’s white, female, and the daughter of a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
Again, lest either Balko or I get criticized for being “anti-cop,” here’s how he finishes his article.
Police officers deserve the same courtesy we afford anyone else we encounter in public life—basic respect and civility. If they’re investigating a crime, they deserve cooperation as required by law, and beyond that only to the extent to which the person with whom they’re speaking is comfortable. Verbally disrespecting a cop may well be rude, but in a free society we can’t allow it to become a crime, any more than we can criminalize criticism of the president, a senator, or the city council. There’s no excuse for the harassment or arrest of those who merely inquire about their rights, who ask for an explanation of what laws they’re breaking, or who photograph or otherwise document police officers on the job.
What we owe law enforcement is vigilant oversight and accountability, not mindless deference and capitulation. Whether or not Henry Louis Gates was racially profiled last week doesn’t change any of that.
Read the whole thing here.