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A couple weeks ago I was pulled over by a motorcycle cop for having an out of date environmental inspection on my old Camry.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.