Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, July 24, 2009

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A couple weeks ago I was pulled over by a motorcycle cop for having an out of date environmental inspection on my old Camry.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


j. christian said...

Obama continues to show poor judgment in his "off Teleprompter" moments. He should've chosen his words more carefully and remained above the fray. As it stands, we got another "national conversation."

It's kind of funny, if you think about it, what the police are asked to do. At any given moment they are expected to be at least somewhat proficient as Constitutional lawyers, security guards, soldiers, race car drivers, paramedics, social workers, marriage counselors, psychologists, mediators, animal control workers, and traffic engineers. All with a smile while some people want to kill them, and most want to spit at them.

I feel fairly confident that there are few human beings who will do well at all those things under those conditions. One would think that a Harvard professor -- and a President of the U.S. -- would understand these things when dealing with such a precariously difficult civil service.

Unknown said...

Wow!! I never thought that this will be such a big news. It went from Gates arrest to Obama apalogy. This has become more interesting than what I thought. So, I collected all the sites or articles (more than 250 sites or articles) related to this hot topic "Cambridge Police Unit Demands Apology from Obama". If you are interested take a look at news, video coverage, people views and reviews on this topic at the below link.

Christine the Soccer Mom said...

One reason they might have arrested him was because a crowd was starting to gather as he shouted about being pushed around by The Man. (PS: Look carefully at the police report, where he says his locks are a bit wonky after a previous break-in. This tells me that his neighbor was being helpful, since he'd already had a robbery recently.)

If that crowd continues to gather, and he incites them into a mini-riot, that is trouble for the police, trouble for the neighborhood, etc.

Most likely, they arrested him just to avoid any kind of riot. It was for everyone's protection, IMO.

If you'd like a really neat insight into police work and what life is like for the cops, I'd highly recommend this blog. There's a lot of insight there that you can't get from Law and Order, CSI, or hate-mongerers like Professor Gates. (He's the head of the African-American Studies Dept. at a university. This alone tells me he is likely walking around with an enormous chip on his shoulder, looking for racism everywhere.)

CMinor said...

Following the cop off your porch while shouting threateningly does constitute assault. It's a judgement call for the cop, to be sure; it's fortunate for them both that he didn't go for the gun.

I wondered (not to insinuate anything here--I have no inside info on the matter)if Gates might have had something stashed at home he didn't want the police to know about. He seemed awfully prickly.

A run-in with the law could happen to any of us (I have a teenager who tends to forget his keys and my neighbor has nearly called the police on him a few times on encountering half of him hanging out a window.) There is no excuse for a rational adult's handling it as Gates did, and given that he had been breaking and entering, if into his own house, no reason to assume ignoble intentions on the part of the cop. Perhaps he'd benefit from a review of Chris Rock's "How Not to Get Your (Expletive Deleted) Kicked by the Police."

(Look it up on YouTube if you're interested. I'll defer decisions regarding posting the link to the proprietors of this blog as the language is not for family viewing.)

Anonymous said...

darwin wrote: "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."

You are failing to look at the other side of this coin: if every cop takes as antagonistic approach to the public as Officer Crowley apparently did in this instance, it would be impossible for the public to tolerate them and society would suffer much as a result.

I have personally known way too many power-tripping assholes with badges to give any cop the benefit of the doubt in a situation like this.


j. christian said...


Perhaps you need to meet more power-tripping assholes with Ivy League tenure to get your world view straightened out.

Darwin said...

You are failing to look at the other side of this coin: if every cop takes as antagonistic approach to the public as Officer Crowley apparently did in this instance, it would be impossible for the public to tolerate them and society would suffer much as a result.

I've certainly dealt with arrogant cops in the past -- I'd never say that they don't exist. However, taking the police report as accurate (and given the history of this particular policeman and the fact that there was a fully inter-racial group of officers on the scene by the time Prof. Gates was arrested -- even by the professor's own account) it doesn't sound to me like Officer Crowley was in fact antagonistic. He knocked, explained why he was there, asked for ID, and that was it. It was the Professor who chose to follow him around shouting, "Is this how a black man is treated in America?" and such until he got himself arrest.

Honestly, more than anything else this sounds like the "Help, help, I'm being oppressed," skit by Monty Python.

Anonymous said...

j christian, power tripping assholes with tenure don't do nearly as much damage to society as the ones with guns and badges. It's easy to avoid academics if you want to. But cops can, and do, invade people's homes, behave antagonistically, and arrest those who do not offer proper submission.

darwin, read my posting again. I never said this incident was about race. It was cops vs. civilians. The other cops who arrived at the scene had no idea what had already happened - they just automatically supported their own guy. This is what cops *always* do.

Anonymous said...

Where I'm coming from on this issue:

1) My family once took in a recovering drug addict who had just been released from a Christian treatment program in a neighboring town. Things went well for the first few weeks, but then he just disappeared. We didn't know where he had was or what might have happened. After a few days a cop showed up at our door and demanded to know where he was. I said I didn't know. The cop said, "Don't lie to me, sir. I'm going to find him whatever it takes." I repeated that I didn't know where he was, but the cop wouldn't leave, and gradually became more and more threatening in his words and demeanor. I really thought I was going to get arrested that night. And for what?

2) I once served on a jury in a criminal case. Several cops testified in the trial and, to make a long story short, none of us on the jury trusted their testimony. (A female juror during deliberations: "I just can't shake the feeling that they are hiding something.") We acquitted (unanimously), in spite of a nagging feeling that the defendant might actually be guilty. The cops were just too arrogant, too cocksure, and when their stories didn't add up we just weren't willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

In short: the cop who came to my door was arrogant and cocksure. The cops in that trial were arrogant and cocksure. And according to Prof. Gates, officer Crowley was arrogant and cocksure. I see no reason to doubt him.


Anonymous said...

Two anecdotes! Someone give the guy an award.

CMinor said...

A bit quick to tar all cops with the same brush, aren't we, Joel?

Your first example might have made your case if you hadn't exposed your bigotry in the second.

For shame.

Anonymous said...

CMinor wrote: "For shame."

Yes. I am ashamed of demanding that cops should treat civilians with respect and testify truthfully in court.


Darwin said...


There is a known tendency for police to gradually adopt a worldview that separates the world into police and civilians, and treats the two as different orders. Barker writes about this a good deal in her book, how it comes about and what good departments and officers do in order to try to counteract the trend.

However, I think you can probably also see that the argument:
- I once dealt with a cop who behaved arrogantly.
- Other people have described cops as behaving arrogantly.
-Therefore, whenever I hear someone claim that a cop has behaved arrogantly and innappropriately, I assume it's true.

not only does not follow, but consists of a level of stereotyping and pre-judging that we'd be uncomfortable with applied to any other group.

For instance, if this kind of thinking was applied to a racial minority, or even a certain voluntary cultural subset within a racial minority (such as, "black men who wear baggy pants and large gold chains"), not only would people agree that my reasoning didn't follow, they'd find it deeply repulsive.

Certainly, one need not deceive oneself that all cops are good cops -- that's obviously not the case. But if one goes beyond that to insist even contrary to other witnesses (police and civilian) on the scene that the cop must assuredly be in the wrong, and if one lacks any interest in understanding the forces that push cops into that kind of worldview, then one is simply endorsing a breakdown of social trust. Now, one can do that, and sometimes it might be the right thing to do. But I think at that point it's at a minimum incumbant on one to come up with an immediate action proposal as to what ought to be done. If it's true that our civic culture has reached the point where we should always assume that cops are lying and abusing their power, and it's thus appropriate to assume against them without even knowing all the facts of the situation, then it's probably time to completely abolish our law enforcement institutions and start over from scratch. If Obama thinks that is the case, he's in a position to do something about it and he ought to. Though given his backpeddling since, it may simply be that he spouted off without thinking.

Anonymous said...

darwin, I will readily grant that not all cops are bad cops, and it is possible that Mr. Gates is the one who escalated the scene with Officer Crowley. As I've thought about this media ruckus a bit more, it dawned on me that this is serving as an excellent Rohrshach (sp?) test:

1) White conservatives, including most of the other commenters in this thread, universally regard it as "elitist Ivy-league prick makes trouble with uniformed working-class Joe."

2) White liberals, and all blacks and Latinos of any persuasion, regard it as "black guy gets harassed in his own home by white cop."

3) Libertarians, like me, regard it as "cop antagonizes civilian, for the billionth time."

President Obama has shown that he is particularly sensitive to the issue of white cops harassing minorities, for reasons that should spring readily to mind. The fact that he is backtracking may mean that he now has doubts about Prof. Gates' story, or it may just mean that he is worried about how his remarks are playing politically.

While I don't want to paint with too broad of a brush, the fact is that I cannot get to know every cop in the US. I have to make judgements based on the few cops who I have known and they, I'm afraid, don't look good at all. Sorry, but there it is.


Anonymous said...

A friend of the family's wife (who was originally from Poland) was stopped by the police. She immediately jumped out of her car, and was bubbling effusively at the police officer who asked her to get back in the car. She then questioned him as to why she had to get back in the car. Meanwhile, her husband, understanding the situation, said: "D, please get in the car now!"

I explained to her that every time a policeman approaches a car during a traffic stop he could be killed. She was shocked about this. I explained that you should do everything in your power to put the officer at ease, because it will make the encounter go much easier.

After the encounter is over, and the policeman is back at the barracks, if you feel your rights were infringed upon you can approach the officer's superior, file a complaint, sue them in court, go to the paper, or anything else that is legal.

But a rule I follow is to immediately do whatever the officer asks me to do.