I happen to like police. They seem to me a lot like baseball players, members of an exclusive club, children who never quite grow up. They live in a parallel universe boys club with different rights and privileges than normal people. They find their comforts and their rewards in a manner that is very different from the rest of us. I do, however, find them to be generally honorable, and likeable. I still think so, but something has changed.
Not a day goes by now without our being informed about some police action somewhere going terribly wrong. A SWAT team somewhere serving a warrant injures a child; more or less innocent people, mostly black, are shot, choked or merely beaten senseless in events ranging from traffic stops to simple encounters on the street; dogs are shot; shots are fired into vehicles almost willy-nilly; the serving of warrants is now a military style operation. What, pray tell, is going on?
I still like police in general, but it does seem that many of them are being carried away on some kind of emotional wave. What kind of wave?
My Formative Years
My attitude towards police was formed in my youth, like most people’s. I grew up in a working class neighborhood of New York City in the Fifties and Sixties. Some of my neighbors were policemen; many were the fathers of my friends. Over the years I had my share of interactions with the NYPD, my share and more. It all went very well.
This was the old time white New York, and if you were white you received a certain amount of consideration. So there were the usual traffic stops: riding a motorcycle with no helmet; making a right turn on a red light; going through a red light; making a left turn on a red light into a one way street. I never got the ticket, not once. I was scolded and reminded of the consequences, and finally the cop would, with a wave of his nightstick, tell me, “get the fuck out of here.”
In my late teens we’d get taken on by police sometimes driving around in the middle of the night. Parked on a dark street, police would want to know what we were doing. It was a fair question, what we were doing was illegal, although it was quiet and non-threatening. I was unfailingly polite, and nothing ever came of it. Once we were stopped and vigorously searched by drug enforcement police (NYPD) after we stopped and knocked on the side door of a house that had been raided, resulting in a seizure of several pounds of marijuana. We were clean; they let us go. That was a close one. Never any trouble though, and there was generally a reason for the police interest.
I saw police in other situations as well. Coming to a house or apartment in response to some kind of call the police followed a simple script. First, the knock on the door, an earth splitting blast, usually with the butt of a nightstick. Two police would enter, one waving the stick and the other hanging back with his hand close to his gun. The cop with the stick had a few preliminary questions: whose place is this? Who else is here? Are there any weapons in the apartment? Where’s the kitchen? (There are knives in the kitchen.) What’s the problem? If everyone was sober and reasonable, the police would settle down immediately and try to be helpful.
Nothing to hate about any of that. The NYPD were very reasonable, as long as you were white, anyway.
Those Police Were Not Always Benevolent
They could get rough sometimes, even with white boys. We kind of asked for it, we were a bunch of hell raisers. Shoplifting was involved; we fought at the drop of a hat; boys got stomped; cars were stolen; drugs were purchased, sold and used; underage drinking was common. We might be visited by police if we were just hanging around on some corner of town. If one of us was impolite to the officer, they might receive a poke with the nightstick. My friend Tommy got a poke in the solar plexus one time that dropped him like a bad habit. (Tommy should have known better, his father was a cop.) We could understand that and we couldn’t complain. We were out looking for trouble, waiting for a soda or beer delivery truck with an incautious driver or something. One friend of mine was loudly drunk after midnight one time and was taken to the police station. Whatever he said to the police, or however he was acting, it was enough to get him thrown down a flight of stairs with his hands cuffed behind him. Luckily he was so drunk that he only dislocated a shoulder. We understood that too. We knew that some of us would be police someday, and that we’d probably do the same.
The Old Time Black Experience
I know that it was rougher, even back then, for black boys. The rough treatment was probably about the same, but maybe with a little more fury. The black boys were probably more likely to get arrested if they were caught drinking in the park. (For us white boys, the cops just took any remaining beer and told us to clean up and “get the fuck out of here.”) I think that the big difference was that the black boys were much more likely to get set up for something that they didn’t do.
From George Whitmore, Jr. to Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, police seemed to think that in the interest of rapidly solving crimes it was generally best to grab some semi-plausibly guilty black male and get him to confess somehow. Somewhere between lies, coercion, and beatings, police got confessions from a lot of black men who feared that they’d get more time if they didn’t cooperate.
Even for blacks, though, it was the nightstick or fists, and not the fifty bullets or a choke hold that they are likely to encounter today.
As regards the black community, these tactics were a continuation of an older pattern of keeping black Americans in their place, wherever that was thought to be at the time. It was a step up, too, because one of the older techniques was lynching. Lynching was often arbitrary and almost always fatal; fisticuffs and wrongful incarceration are slightly to be preferred, I suppose. Where there’s life, there’s hope.
Today’s news headlines indicate that the pattern has swung back to fatal solutions, usually based on either, “he fit the description,” or “the officer feared for his life.” It’s one small step for a police officer, but it’s a giant leap backwards for American society.
Can We Talk About This?
Our news these days comes in a “battle of the echo chambers” format. You love America, or you hate America, etc. Either you hate immigrants and want them all to leave, or you love immigrants more than you love America and want to turn the country over to immigrants. All of the middle ground has become no-man’s land. Regarding this new police behavior, as in all other matters, the discussion has become instantly polarized. We must be either blindly supportive of police, out of some kind of love or respect, or we are anti-police and we do not value police lives. How stupid is that?
Police violence is now a problem. Isn’t it more reasonable to acknowledge the problem and discuss ways to achieve some relief and put in place some kind of accountability? To do so is in no way equivalent to being anti-police or devaluing police lives. Who is served by adopting the position: my police, right or wrong?
This failure of discourse is even worse than that. Does anyone think that it’s a good idea to set up the dichotomy of blacks v. police? One must somehow be either for police or for blacks? This would add a dimension of evil to the simple stupidity. Not to mention that many police are black, and many of the victims of this new police enthusiasm for unthinking violence are, let’s say, not black. Police forces, in urban settings at least, now feature considerable diversity, and from the news reports it seems like we’re all in the crosshairs, regardless of race. There’s a racial element to this problem, the horror is falling on black Americans out of proportion to their numbers, but it’s not the whole substance of the matter.
Can we talk about this?
Police, And Others, Are Afraid
I think that it’s clear that some police are overreacting out of fear. They’re not the only people that are afraid, but we’re talking about the problem as it relates to police. In the case of the police, the fear is not unreasonable.
Much of police work involves simple, repetitive tasks. Police serve warrants; they respond to silent alarms; they answer domestic complaints and noise complaints; they perform traffic stops; many such things. In past times, none of these activities were likely to result in the police getting shot.
Now, all too frequently, police knock on a door and are met with gunfire. American citizens themselves have become much more prone to fearfulness and violence. This may indeed be more of a white problem than a black problem. Consider the anti-government crowd, who have been responsible for many individual murders of police, and others, and who can even take the credit for a few mass murders by explosives. (Timothy McVeigh is the poster child.) How about the Sovereign Citizen crowd? They don’t recognize government authority at all and have displayed a willingness to kill police in order to try to spark a revolution of some kind. Not to mention various militias out in the woods on military maneuvers preparing for a zombie apocalypse or a U.N. invasion or something. Many of them are anti-government too. The American citizenry in general is heavily armed and increasingly driven by fear. Fear of something, or generalized fear of everything at once. There’s a lot of hair triggers out there, and often the police find them first, and frequently police die in the event.
Police these days have every reason to be afraid when they start their shifts.
Somehow the result has been that the now common violent overreactions on the part of police fall mainly on black Americans. If police are afraid generally, that is largely justified. If police have become more afraid of blacks in particular, there is no justification for that.
Blacks, like Jews in many prior scapegoat scenarios, are being blamed for the dangers facing police far out of proportion to any reasonable analysis. This fear of blacks makes police trigger happy in situations where the people being taken on are black.
There is no doubt that many black people, mainly but not all black men, are being killed unnecessarily and without any rational justification. Many of the victims are totally innocent, they’re just shopping at Walmart or returning home with take-out. Some are guilty of something, but not guilty of anything that justifies the use of fatal force. It is a great shame, and a big problem for America that this blacks and police problem has been allowed to get so far out of hand. It is a problem that needs to be addressed quickly and urgently. Black lives matter; police lives matter; people are dying. That’s the very definition of an urgent problem.
Race is involved, and racism is probably a factor, but racism alone does not completely explain the phenomenon. Police are now in the habit of applying unreasonable force to individuals who get on their radar. These individuals may be possible lawbreakers or just people passing by, and they may be black, white or other. Police are being killed for the perceived status crime of being police by shooters of different races. Federal agents fare just as badly. My strong hunch is that most of the ambush killers of police and Federal agents are white anti-government types. Police of different races have been killed. It’s just a mess in every direction.
It’s American society that has the fear problem, and fear of blacks and fear of police are only two aspects of it. Two out of many, like considering only two facets of a diamond.
We should be discussing these things. What are people afraid of? Are the fears reasonable? Can the fears be mitigated? Can they even be controlled? What do people need to learn? How can they be calmed down? Who are the individuals or groups who are encouraging people to be afraid? What can be done to stop this senselessly violent behavior on the part of not only police, but also of ordinary citizens?
Vocabulary tip for my English Learner friends: "to take on . . ."
When police approach someone, to talk to them, or give them a traffic ticket, or arrest them, any time that the police will not take a turned back without offense, they are "taking him on." There's something that they want, and they mean to get it. That's what it means as it relates to police anyway. There are other meanings.