American Culture

Good cop/bad cop: the tasing of Andrew Meyer and remembering Officer Bubba

How much do you trust your local neighborhood law enforcement authorities? Hopefully a lot, and hopefully with good reason.

Today, though, events at a John Kerry speaking engagement at the University of Florida have sparked another round of debate over the conduct and capability of police officers (both those on the scene and in general) and the conversations I’ve seen and participated in today have me thinking and remembering.

First, the “what,” and I’ll try to use a measured and neutral source here.

During a question and answer session with John Kerry at the University of Florida Monday night police used a Taser on and then arrested a student when he got loud and police tried to control him. (Story.)

I’ve seen the video and read a good bit on the incident today, and would concur with a decision to remove the student, although Kerry himself, who was apparently unaware of the details of what happened after the student was hauled to the back of the auditorium, is saying none of the action was necessary. I have seen responses ranging from the rational to ridiculous, and am not happy to report that some of the most ludicrous comments come from people who are smart enough to know better. For a smattering of what’s being said in the press, Google to your heart’s content.

Second, the “thinking” I mentioned. I found myself trading some e-mail with Ian Welsh over at The Agonist this morning. We both agreed that Kerry had handled things as well as could be expected, given the circumstances, and Ian was wondering why the drama was allowed to play out in the back of the room, with cameras rolling, as it did. There were five cops – get him out the door.

My response:

When push comes to shove I tend to be what I guess you’d have to call a “law and order progressive.” I have zero patience for out-of-control cops, but I also sympathize with what they’re up against these days. So I tend to give the benefit of the doubt when I have no contextual evidence saying I shouldn’t.In this case, I don’t have much sympathy for the cops. They needed to get him out of the damned room – he’d given ample excuse to have himself escorted out – because what he wanted was to create an event. Once he gets outside he’d have shut up and you’d have been fine. If five cops can’t get that one guy out the door, they need firing.

And then they tasered him, which was an admission of ineptitude.

So from what I can see Kerry deserves some credit – far more than he’s getting from some quarters, for sure – and the cops need a refresher course.

A little more context might be in order here. When I was an undergrad I worked for the campus police department for three years. As a student security officer I did the usual things – desk duty, dispatch, foot patrols, student escorts, etc. – but I also spent some time riding with the officers, especially when I was on third shift (which was 95% of the time).

Some of the officers were top-flight professionals in every sense of the word. Others, not so much. In fact, two of the ones I worked with (including the one I probably spent the most time with for a couple of years) wound up getting arrested and sent to prison for theft.

And finally, the “remembering.” The US has a long tradition of racism issues where law enforcement is concerned. Minority communities are often convinced that the cops are abusing and oppressing them at every turn, and when you grow up in as white a spot in the South as I did, you’re steeped in a culture that automatically dismisses such complaints as the bitching of people who’d be fine if they’d stop breaking the law.

So with that in mind, let’s step back in time to a moment I’ll remember as long as I live. It’s around 1984, and if memory serves it’s during summer break. I’m working third shift foot patrol on an empty campus and around 2am the officer on duty – let’s call him Bill – radios me to see if I want to grab a break with him. We’d usually head to a spot just off campus called Fat Mama’s where we’d grab a bite and something to drink before heading back for the rest of the shift. Frequently city police officers would come in, as well, and when they did we’d sit with them.

This night a city officer – let’s call this fat cracker Bubba just for the hell of it, why don’t we? – comes in and the three of us yap while we’re eating. As the conversation unfolds I grow increasingly uneasy with Bubba’s vocabulary, which makes repeated use of the word “nigger.” There have probably been Klan rallies where there were fewer anti-black epithets in play. And the conversation in which these offenses are being uttered isn’t idle or personal – he’s talking about work.

Finally I’ve had about enough. I’m in my early 20s and have a rep for saying what’s on my mind, whether doing so is wise or not. So I look across the table and say something to the effect of “you know, that sounds a little racist.”

Bubba looks back and says, in a stunningly accusatory tone: “Hell yeah I’m a racist. Ain’t you?”

This is where my perfect recall ends. I think I was too absolutely blown away by such a brazen admission of such a horrible thing that the internal recorder simply shut down. I have no idea what I said next (although I like to hope it was something righteous) and I couldn’t swear for sure what planet I spent the rest of the shift on.

But at that moment my understanding of the world changed. All those blacks, in my city and in places like Philly (which I think had recently been dealing with some highly publicized police abuse charges), they were right. The cops really did hate them because they were black.

The next I heard of Officer Bubba he had been promoted and put in charge of the anti-drug task force in the city’s most troublesome black neighborhood. The most humbling part of it all is that I’m fairly sure he’s a distant relative. Not distant enough, to be sure…

The tasing of Andrew Meyer wasn’t a race issue, so my apologies if this had been something of a winding path. I guess the upshot, though, is that I wish I could trust my police implicitly, but I can’t. I’ve noted the misadventures of the Denver Police Department several years back in a case that caused me to start carrying a gun, and there are just enough news reports out there to keep me leery. I hate this, because I know that the majority of cops are good and dedicated types who deserve better than the taint Bubba and the now-suspended U of Florida officers bring to their profession.

All I can say is that if things ever go sideways for me, I hope I don’t draw one of the bad seeds. And I look forward to the day when I don’t have to think things like “I’m glad I’m not black.”

14 replies »

  1. Most people know at some level that with police it’s best to accord them the let-sleeping-dogs-lie treatment. More and more are trained in mediation, but it’s safer, when stopped and questioned, to assume they’re loose cannons waiting to roll.

    But many use interactions with the police for their own purposes. . .

    Andrew Meyer to expose them as unfeeling instruments of the state.

    Minority men, as well as poor whites, act up on being accosted to pass some unstated test of their manhood.

    Worst of all are those unfortunates who escalate incidents in order to get the incarceration process that they feel is inevitable, given their life circumstances, over and done with. That way, at least they won’t have it hanging over their heads anymore.

  2. With the police it’s best, even though many are trained in mediation and de-escalating crises these days, to let sleeping dogs lie. You never know when you’ll get a loose cannon waiting to roll.

    Many use police to their own ends, such as. . .

    Andrew Meyer, to show how they’re an unfeeling instrument of the state.

    Minority men, who resist as a test of manhood.

    Worst of all are those unfortunates who feel that, given their life circumstances, incarceration is inevitable. They escalate incidents as a way of expediting that process. Then, at least, they won’t have it hanging over their heads anymore.

  3. This was an interesting, thoughtful post. It’s troubling that anyone discusses this particular situation with a sense of certainty, so I appreciate your subtlety on the subject.

    This is just idle speculation on my part, but when I watched the video I got the feeling that Meyer was almost trying to get the police to taze him. I’m not saying that was his plan at the outset, but the whole thing seemed like a performance piece that was all about stoking his own sense of grandiosity. As things escalated Meyer struck me as sounding oddly disingenuous in his plea for help and strangely resistant to restraint for a guy who was afraid that he was going to get tazed, “bro”.

    I get as frosted as anyone about police misconduct, but it was difficult to see what exactly was happening in that little pile up in the back of the room. I think “victims” like Meyer do a bit of a disservice to perception of people who really are abused by out of control cops.

  4. It seems, from what I was reading yesterday, that Meyer is the sort who seeks out and looks to create attention around himself. Not that this is inherently bad – I’m something of a ham myself. But the more I review what happened, the more it looks like he wanted to get on the front page and that the UF cops played right into his hands. They handled it terribly – if you’re dealing with an out-of-control attention seeker, the first thing you do is get him out of the venue and away from the cameras. At that point his motivation is gone.

  5. The situation seems clouded by the alleged “obnoxiousness” of the student in question, and the dislike (by a large portion of our country’s pundits) for Kerry. Really, I don’t think I even care whether or not the student was obnoxious or if his argument was in the right, I don’t care if he has a “history of pranking” – none of that is important, you know? I don’t get why it was important to taser the guy. My concern is the tendency for the police/law-enforcement to go to extremes to ‘control’ the populace. I don’t understand the reason for this situation to have so quickly reached the point of tasering the guy. I mean really – there was one guy and a few police officers. Sbduing and removing the guy was the point but I am not sure that the means were justified. Was he threatening anyone? Was there any information that he might be dangerous? it certainly doesn’t seem so. He was, in their words, “resisting an officer”. I guess I don;t know what that means anymore.

  6. too troubling…

    being annoying to power should be EXTREMELY tolerated because of the insane power gov’t can exercise when unchallenged…

    and yes, he may be annoying… but that’s grounds for electroshock assault…?

  7. I think one of the things we need to ask ourselves is when it’s appropriate to use force, and how much force is appropriate. I agree with those who say that being an obnoxious blowhard doesn’t exactly call for extreme police measures. The videos I’ve seen show the police, seemingly, taking an aggressive, physical approach almost immediately after the microphone goes dead. It hardly seems appropriate.

    So, when is taser use appropriate? Clearly, when the only other option is a gun, tasers can save lives. When the only other options is a nightstick or billy club, tasers can save lives and health. Unfortunately, many police seem to find tasers very useful in bringing about “compliance” when escalating force is not necessary.

    Take the case at UCLA, in which a student was repeatedly tazed after going limp; a common form of civil disobedience. In that case, it seems that the police tazed the man to avoid having to put forth the physical effort of carrying him. Is that appropriate? Personally, I don’t think so.

    So, to put a stake in the ground, here, I guess I believe that tasering is appropriate only when the only other options increase the level of violence. And I didn’t see any need for the tazing in this incident.

    As to Sam’s point about most cops being good cops, all I can say is that a number of those “good” cops seem quite comfortable covering for the bad cops, and THAT is why we mistrust the cops as much as we do.