Understanding the Police

The nation (or at least, that portion of it which follows the news cycle) suddenly found itself in one of these “national conversations” about policing this week, after President Obama accused the Cambridge, Mass. police of having “acted stupidly” in arresting his friend and supporter Prof. Henry Louis Gates Jr. outside his own home for “disorderly conduct”. The police report, minus some privacy data such as addresses, can be viewed here. The short version, is as follows: Prof. Gates returned from a trip to China and found himself having trouble getting into his house, so he and his cab driver forced the door open. A passerby saw this, feared a burglary was taking place, and called the police. Officer James Crowley of CPD arrived on the scene shortly thereafter, saw Prof. Gates in the house as he approached it, and though he looked to be a resident, but knocked, explained the situation, and asked for ID to be sure.

Here the two versions of the story diverge. According to Prof. Gates, Officer Crowley repeatedly refused to identify himself, lured him out onto the porch, and then arrested him. (You can read the Professor’s version in an extended interview here.) According to Officer Crowley, Prof. Gates did provide identification, Crowley was satisfied that he was the homeowner, but Gates had immediately taken an angry tone (repeatedly accusing Crowley of treating him this way because he was black) and that Gates followed him outside, accusing him of racial bias and generally shouting at him, until after a warning Officer Crowley arrested him for disorderly conduct.

Now, I think it’s pretty appalling to be arrested at your own house for yelling at someone, even a police officer. At the same time, the police report rings a lot truer to me that Prof. Gates’. And while even given that account, I don’t like the idea of arresting someone in front of his own house for being loud and rude towards the police, it strikes me that Prof. Gates violated a lot of the very basic rules that everyone knows about interacting with police. Perhaps I can best explain with an example:

A couple weeks ago I was pulled over by a motorcycle cop for having an out of date environmental inspection on my old Camry. Now, the power windows on my Camry don’t work anymore, which means I can’t open my windows. Knowing it would be a lot safer to open my door before the officer approach the car, I opened my door and stepped out. The officer, still on his motorcycle, put his hand on his gun and ordered “Get back in the car, sir.”

“My windows don’t work, officer, so I’m going to leave the door open. Is that okay?”

“Alright, sir. You can leave the door open, but keep your hands on the wheel where I can see them.”

Which I did. Once he came up to talk to me, I made sure to telegraph movements (“My insurance papers are in the glove compartment. I’m going to reach over there, okay?”) and maintain a respectful tone — even when he seemed unreasonable, as when he said that if I was going to drive the 50 miles after having my car worked on to get the tests to run for inspection, I’d have to do it somewhere off public roads such as a parking lot.

If anyone other than a police officer ordered me around like this, I would consider it incredibly rude and offensive. Why the heck should I have to stay in my car and keep my hands in view when I’m unarmed, visibly not angry and have no intention of hurting anyone? But we give police officers authority to act this way, and defer to them when they do, because their job (which they do for our benefit) frequently puts them in situations where people do turn violent against them. Being polite and deferential to a police officer, and making it clear that you are being cooperative and will not suddenly turn into a threat, is our part of the social exchange in return for which we are protected from crime.

Growing up in Los Angeles, there was obviously a fair amount of discussion about police behavior. If there was one book I was going to recommend to people about understanding the police, it would be the ethnographic study Danger, Duty, and Disillusion: The Worldview of Los Angeles Police Officers by Joan Barker, an anthropologist at Santa Monica College (and thus a former co-worker of my father). Dr. Barker is a cultural anthropologist who took as her long term research project (the book is based on a twenty year study) the culture of the LAPD. She didn’t come at the topic expected to be impressed, having been active in the anti-war protests of the Vietnam era and being politically quite progressive.

The final product, however, is a well researched and penetrating understanding of the experiences of police officers (especially in large, urban departments) and the forces that shape them during their careers.

I do not have a strong opinion either way as to whether it was the right step for the Cambridge police to arrest Prof. Gates (he was shortly released and no charges are being pressed) or if they should simply have walked away, though I do think that President Obama failed to consider the appropriate role of the president in touchy local affairs such as this when he chose to speak out while admitting he did not know all the facts. But at a minimum we can certainly say that if everyone took as antagonistic an approach to the police as Prof. Gates apparently did in this instance, it would be impossible for them to do their job and society would suffer much as a result.

29 Responses to Understanding the Police

  • I have 2 reactions to this:

    (1) I believe you are being far too deferential to what has become a great abuse of authority by law enforcement agents — they will arrest you for simply not showing them the respect they think they deserve. It might have been imprudent for Gates to yell at the cop (though as a black man in the this country, I sympathize with him), but there is no law against being rude to a cop. We are all trained to be as polite as possible around cops, as even looking at them the wrong way might risk an adverse reaction. This is a daily abuse of power that attracts minimal attention. It’s even worse when they use weapons of violence such as “tasers”. As Josh Marshall put it, this particular cop should not have gotten into a “macho pissing match which ends up getting decided in the favor of the cop because he has the handcuffs and the gun”.

    (2) Your interaction with this particular cop arises from the lack of gun control in this country. Law enforcement agents could be faced by people with guns any time. The best solution is a complete handgun ban, and let is look forward to the day when we can have an unarmed police force, as is the case elsewhere.

  • paul zummo says:

    The best solution is a complete handgun ban, and let is look forward to the day when we can have an unarmed police force, as is the case elsewhere.

    What color is the sky in your world?

  • (1) I believe you are being far too deferential to what has become a great abuse of authority by law enforcement agents — they will arrest you for simply not showing them the respect they think they deserve.

    Seriously, you should try reading Barker’s book — especially as someone who lives in the DC area and thus deals with another big city police department. You’re talking in stereotypes so incredibly broad that you’d mock them viciously if applied to any topic you knew anything about.

    (though as a black man in the this country, I sympathize with him)

    Interesting. I never knew you were black.

    (2) Your interaction with this particular cop arises from the lack of gun control in this country. Law enforcement agents could be faced by people with guns any time. The best solution is a complete handgun ban, and let is look forward to the day when we can have an unarmed police force, as is the case elsewhere.

    Given that the rising number of gun crimes in the UK has caused them to seriously consider arming their police now, years after enacting a total handgun ban, I’m not sure how this adds up. Also, your point about police elsewhere being unarmed doesn’t really fit with my experience of routinely seeing police carrying submachine guns in France and Italy.

  • Something tells me that cops will always be wary of whether the people they are approaching are armed.

    Anyway, my fiance got pulled over today for going 72 although she was in a 1994 Nissan Pathfinder that shudders at about 65. She was polite and nothing terrible happened (other than the ticket, but as the cop forgot to check her insurance, it was clear he was in a hurry to meet a quota). Still a BS ticket (it will be fixed), but I think cops do enough for so little payment that being polite is a reasonable thing. They’re paid too little to do too much, and they are human beings, after all.

  • The USCCB has a position on Notre Dame? I must have missed that. But while you are busy fighting symbolic battles, I care about the real world, and how policy decisions affect real people. And yes, the the “right” to own a firearm is *not* an unqualified right, and I belive it to be gravely immoral to support such an unqualified right in at atmosphere of such off-the-charts gun deaths.

    Darwin– I’m familiar with the UK debate. But let’s have some perspective– look at the gun deaths per capita here and there. Gun homicides per 100,000: 3.7, England/ Wales: 0.11. In Europe, you will often have an unarmed police force, with special divisions allowed to carry weapons (such as those dedicated to fighting organozed crime). That may be remote in the United States, but can….hope.

  • JohnH says:

    I would hazard a guess that poverty levels are a much greater influence on crime than access to guns.

    Anyhow, on the Gates affair–from everything I’ve read, it sounds like both parties behaved pretty badly, escalating it to a level where the cop took Gates into custody seemingly to avoid losing face.

  • Art Deco says:

    I might suggest that constricted time horizons and the effect of same on self-control and personal discipline have an influence over poverty levels and crime rates in tandem.

  • But while you are busy fighting symbolic battles, I care about the real world, and how policy decisions affect real people. And yes, the the “right” to own a firearm is *not* an unqualified right, and I belive it to be gravely immoral to support such an unqualified right in at atmosphere of such off-the-charts gun deaths.

    Given that you have repeatedly argued that it’s appropriate for Catholics to essentially ignore the abortion legality issue in regards to politics because the issue is “dead” when only one party supports outlawing abortion, I’m not sure how arguing for a handgun ban is “real world” when neither party even remotely supports that.

    Even if one supported a total US handgun ban (which arguably would not achieve your stated objectives anyway), it is obviously a total political impossibility at this point. Why bring it up? (Note that the USCCB has not recently.)

    Besides, this is a total red herring to the topic of this post, which has to do with the appropriate interaction with police officers. In regards to which, I advise you to educate yourself if your above comments are representative of your knowledge level.

  • j. christian says:

    I advise you to educate yourself if your above comments are representative of your knowledge level.

    Seconded. How about a ridealong, MM?

  • Indeed, save the Second Amendment issues for another date; this Gates debacle has nothing to do with them and, as DC astutely observed, nothing more than a red-herring/baiting tactic.

    An irrefutable point remains that Obama acted irresponsibly and ignorantly by offering his opinion (even though he was “asked” by a pre-screened reporter), particularly in light of his own admission/preface that he did not have all the facts before him. He recklessly escalated a local, municipal issue into that of a national “race” issue.

    But, Obama has his own agenda and as has been discussed elsewhere at length, Obama’s relationship with Gates, Gates’ attorney Ogletree and Obama’s issues with (if not contempt of) the Cambridge Police Department are long-standing.

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    Gates received precisely the same treatmant a white man would have received who lipped off to the police. I have many clients who can sorrowfully attest to that fact. As I never weary of telling my clients who run afoul of the police, you treat them with courtesy, ask to see your attorney, and leave it to me to battle with them in court. This is not rocket science. Some cops are bullies, most are just normal people trying to make it through the day. Treat cops with courtesy and a situation almost always improves. Shoot your mouth off at them, and you end up paying expensive fees to someone like me to straighten out a completely avoidable situation.

    Personally if I had been Gates I would have been pretty ticked off too. However, I would have been smart enough to have treated the cop with courtesy, resolved the initial situation quickly, and then have a discussion with the States’ Attorney, the Police Chief, and the head of the police review board the next day. Of course I would also have had a word or two with local media outlets. Life goes so much smoother if you engage the brain first instead of the tongue.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    I think it is absolutely ridiculous that a person can be arrested for “talking back” to a cop.

    In this age of video cameras we’ve seen instances where cops, not knowing they are being watched, at like fascist thugs. I saw one case where a cop taunted a man, saying, “I can say whatever I want and they’ll believe me instead of you.”

    It is because of the rash actions of police that some violent criminals get off on ‘technicalities’, while people who did nothing more than utter a remark some cop found annoying end up being harassed with court dates, fines, etc. Abuse of power is something that always needs to be taken seriously.

    That said, I couldn’t disagree more about a ‘handgun ban’. With due respect to the USCCB, I want to hear the moral reasoning as to why I, a responsible, law-abiding citizen, should not be allowed to purchase a handgun for home and self-defense. An approach that only looks at raw statistics misses the fact that it is precisely those people inclined to break laws already that are going to use guns for evil.

    I think it is possible that their reasoning is flawed.

  • Given that you have repeatedly argued that it’s appropriate for Catholics to essentially ignore the abortion legality issue in regards to politics because the issue is “dead” when only one party supports outlawing abortion…

    I never said that. I said that I believe it is deeply wrong to support the party in question, and that its tactics will set back the pro-life cause. That is my own judgment only.

  • Donald R. McClarey says:

    “I think it is absolutely ridiculous that a person can be arrested for “talking back” to a cop.”

    Most states have fairly broad “disorderly conduct” statutes Joe. Here is a link to the Illinois statute:

    http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/ilcs/fulltext.asp?DocName=072000050K26-1

    Now I can usually win these cases for clients as most jurors and judges tend to sympathize with the Defendant as long as only words were exchanged. However the client is still out my fee plus time off from work. I think that is a high price for venting spleen, but if people wish to do so I am always happy to represent them. After going through the legal system most agree with me that courtesy is normally a cheaper way to go.

  • j. christian says:

    In this age of video cameras we’ve seen instances where cops, not knowing they are being watched, at like fascist thugs.

    On the contrary, Joe, I think that the vast majority of those police cameras show that the police act with incredible restraint in the face of fairly regular hostile encounters. For every Rodney King incident there are hundreds of non-incidents. They don’t make the news, however.

  • Elaine Krewer says:

    My perspective on law enforcement tends to be favorable — most likely, because I am a white, middle class female whose only run-ins with the law have been a few speeding tickets, and who as a newspaper reporter for 2 years on a small-town police and court beat, had to treat them with courtesy and professionalism. I did not happen to encounter any blatant instances of police brutality or corruption on my beat, but if I had stuck with it longer, or covered a bigger city, I probably would have eventually.

    I agree with j. christian that for every instance in which a cop acts like a thug there are probably at least 50 other times when they don’t. Bad cops (like bad teachers, bad priests, etc.) always get more attention than good ones.

    As for gun control, I’ve never owned a gun, and only fired a gun once in my entire life (skeet shooting on a camping trip). But — I firmly believe that since people have a natural right to defend themselves, any adult should have the right to own a gun UNLESS a good reason exists to deny them that right (criminal record, mental instability, failing to be properly trained in the use of firearms, etc.) If someone uses a gun to commit a crime, punish them with an additional fine or prison sentence for the misuse of the gun, just as we punish motorists who drive drunk or reckelessly.

  • Donna V. says:

    I have a few relatives who are cops. The thing to remember is when the police enter a home, they have no idea what to expect. It might be nothing or there might be one or more armed criminals in the shadows. How do they know? When you are dealing with a cop who is already on edge, the wise thing is to defuse the tension, not pour fuel on it.

    I can understand why it happens, but there are blacks who are too quick to assume that somebody of a different race who is being a jerk to them is doing so because they are black. I worked with a black woman once who was sure that the Greek sandwich shop owner in our building hated her because she was black. But he was rude to me, rude to just about everyone who came in the place. He was like the Seinfeld soup Nazi; he was nasty to everyone, and unlike the soup Nazi, it’s not like his food was so great that you were willing to tolerate abuse. The place eventually closed and let us hope he is making a living in some business that does not involve customer service. There are racists, and then there are just people with king-sized chips on their shoulders.

  • I think it is absolutely ridiculous that a person can be arrested for “talking back” to a cop.

    Well, obviously, as a person qua person, there’s no reason why talking back to a cop should result in being arrested, any more than it would be fair for me to be arrested for talking back to you.

    I think the key thing here, however, is that when an officer is attempting to do his job (investigating a potential crime) if people just talk back and yell at him and accuse him of being a racist and generally are disruptive, it prevents the cop from being able to do his job.

    When you’re the one being stopped by the police, and you know there’s nothing all that bad you were doing, it’s natural to be indignant. I’m sure the last thing that Prof. Gates wanted to deal with the day he got back form China was some police officer showing up on his doorstep wanting to know if he was supposed to be in the house. The thing to understand is, not only does the officer have no idea if you’re really innocent or not, but he very frequently deals with people who are not innocent and try to bluster or fight their way out of the situation.

    That’s why many states or cities have “contempt of cop” laws — so that people understand they need to cooperate or else face consequences. (Though often, the consequences are just hanging out in the cooler for a couple hours and then being released without charges.)

    Anyway, I know I must sound like a broken record on this, but I do strongly recommend Barker’s book, which you might be able to find at a decent library. It’s certainly not a “cops are always right” book but it both helps you understand what cops deal with and where they’re coming from — which often makes things more sympathetic, and in other cases at least helps one understand what the life of being a big city police officer tends to do to people. To understand all is not necessarily to forgive all, but it is useful nonetheless.

  • G-Veg says:

    Police officers are trained to respond professionally to provocation. When an officer fails to do so, it is a serious problem.

    My guess is that the behavior in question was far more than merely “being rude.” (I make that assertion based upon the reputation of the officer involved.)

    In most of the arrests that I have seen “go wrong,” it is the failure to follow lawful orders that pushes officers up the “ladder of force.” It isn’t that the SUBJECT is merely rude but that an officer orders them to “show me your hands” or “stop where you are” and the SUBJECT continues to approach and refuses to comply. Officers then become all too aware of their vulnerability, particularly in enclosed spaces.

    There are a number of simulators that officers receive regular training on that provide reasonably close simulation of such incidents. It is disturbing to die in these simulations but virtually everyone does since correctly gauging the conditions is incredibly difficult. The inclination is either to be too aggressive or too reserved. Either one can get someone killed.

    As to the firearms issue… Whether or not handguns were illegal would not have changed THIS situation, as best I can tell. Officers will continue to assume the worst since doing otherwise will get you or your partner killed.

  • Tom Casey says:

    Interesting that no one here has law enforcement experience. Lots of first stones cast, though.

    I wonder how many people could do the job for one day, let alone a full career.

    Meanwhile, be sure to take such domestic tranquility as we have for granted.

  • Gabriel Austin says:

    I wonder if we are not overlooking one aspect: that of the tendency overpaid Harvard professors [whatever their color] to be rude and overbearing.

    I would be curious to know what would have been Prof. Gates’ reaction if, while he was in China, his house had been burglarized.

  • Tim Shipe says:

    I am a family man and huge advocate of Law and Order- see my post “Take Back America Street by Street” from April 21 here at American Catholic.

    We need a really strong police presence, and we need really effective means of watchdogging police powers- to make sure abuses do not become systemic institutionally or along racial lines- for example. Targeting the bad neighborhoods to help break the cycles of crime and criminals, and fostering solid team values among police by bringing together mixed-race squads, with family wages to protect against corruption and add to the community prestige and role-modeling potential.

    With this must be very transparent policing departmental policies, and citizen board advisory and oversight committees- to make necessary reforms and weed out bad apples.

    How much of this is going on with the Cambridge police situation? If charges of racial abuse are being made, police should be trained to call for back-up quickly and to have minority officiers also prepped for responding to put more diverse perspectives at the scene asap.

    In an unfallen world, we wouldn’t need to do all of this, and after getting America under a better code of conduct, and breaking down many of the root causes of criminal behavior, we can begin then to cut back on the policing presence- but right now is the time to push forward not pull back to armed fortresses while the streets go more and more into the hands of the criminally-inclined.

    On the Gates particular situation- Obama was wrong to weigh in with only a partial set of facts- and if Gates was getting out-of-hand verbally, but not violently- that would have been the time to call for a racially-mixed back-up team to get that diversity check to ensure that there wasn’t something racial in the mix that was adding fuel to the fire rather like the firemen in Fahrenheit “451″? who start fires rather than put them out. I don’t have all the facts so I won’t go out on a limb and say one or the other parties was at primary fault.

  • cminor says:

    Elaine,
    Though being a white female may help, it’s no guarantee (trust me) that you’ll never find yourself face-to-gun barrel with an officer (even when you’re not breaking any laws!) Prudence dictates not elevating the threatcon level.

    There’s been a lot of weighing in here on the appropriate way for police to deal with an unruly individual who has otherwise not broken the law. It was my impression that shouting and behaving in a threatening manner toward another person constitutes assault and is therefore grounds enough for arrest. I’d be interested to get the perspective of some of the legal eagles who write for or read this blog on that.

  • Art Deco says:

    I am not a legal eagle, but I can tell you that there are provisions of the Penal Law of New York which define the crime of ‘Menacing’ and the crime of ‘Harrassment’. These are class b misdemeanors and more serious than ‘disorderly conduct’. I am not sure either would apply given the precise facts of the case. If Dr. Gates had brandished a truncheon as a weapon the former might apply and if he had followed the officer down the block shouting obscenities at him the latter might.

  • Donna V. says:

    Tim: One of the officers on the scene at the Gates house was black. He backs Crowley’s account. And Crowley has taught courses on racial profiling. He has been praised by the other officers in his Department for being an excellent cop.

    That’s why the attempt to make this into an example of racist injustice has backfired. If Crowley had a record of harassing minorities in the past or was rumored to be a less than honest cop, I’d have a different take on it.

    Remember, Cambridge is not only wealthy but one of the most liberal of communities in a very blue state. I am finding attempts to equate this to Alabama in 1958 rather risible.

    Gabriel Austin: You make a good point. This is probably as much about class as it is about race. Haaavard professors of any color undoubtably get quite a bit of deference in Cambridge, which is probably why Gates thought showing the cop a Harvard ID (with no address on it) would be sufficient. When the cop was unimpressed, Gates played the race card.

  • Donna V. says:

    What I find most irritating about this is Obama’s remarks. I recall that Nixon also put his foot into it when he publicly opined that Charles Manson was guilty – while the trial was still going on. The press, rightly, criticized him for that. I’ve not seen much press criticism of Obama – but then he is “The Won”.

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