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.
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.
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.”
Categories: American Culture