Gates-gate is, of course, only the most recent installment of the American Dilemma, and not nearly as bad as it could have been—nobody got killed, or even physically injured. Dunno whether this means we are learning how to do this stuff less dangerously, or just that a Harvard professor in a classy college neighborhood is less likely to get shot for mouthing off to a cop than a Haitian cabdriver in the ghetto. I would like to believe the former, but experience tells me it’s probably the latter. Having lived fairly near Gates’ neighborhood myself for a while, I find that reasonable.
But I’m hearing all sorts of people saying that Gates himself obviously had a chip on his shoulder or the incident wouldn’t have happened in the first place; or that Obama only made things worse by commenting on the incident (which he did only in response to a reporter’s question, which he couldn’t have avoided without also making things worse, after all.) Or that any African-American who presumes that the cop in the case was racist is only a reverse racist himself. Or that anybody, white, black, or purple, who mouths off to a cop, regardless of circumstances, deserves what he gets.
Some of my best friends and favorite students have been cops. As an attorney and an English teacher, I have crossed paths with cops in my professional capacities and occasionally in theirs. (In case you were wondering, they get trained to write police report English, in which nobody ever gets out of a car, they always exit the vehicle.) I have been arrested once, in an incident which ultimately got me a couple of grand in a settlement. My husband was shaken down by the police on a couple of occasions. My surrogate nephew was arrested for driving without a license on suspicion of being Chinese. (Long story. Charges ultimately dismissed, when judge took judicial notice of the fact that he was clearly not Chinese.) I have also handled a number of divorce cases involving police officers as parties. It’s a sufficiently varied spectrum of experience that I don’t think I’m biased one way or the other. But I am still really bothered by the idea that police officers are trained to establish and maintain their authority before doing anything else.
I have occasionally given talks to local kids and their parents about staying out of legal trouble. That usually includes a subchapter on dealing with cops. Talk softly and slowly. Keep your hands empty and in plain view. Move slowly. Don’t run, in either direction. Don’t swear. After the second or third time around, I realized that these instructions are very similar to what I would tell somebody heading into a wildlife preserve, about how to behave so as not to get eaten by a grizzly bear. It is sound advice (for both purposes.) But are we supposed to be training, arming, and paying our police officers to behave like grizzly bears? Aren’t they supposed to be ones who can keep their heads when all about them are losing theirs? Aren’t they supposed to be keeping the peace, not protecting their own prerogatives?
I do have a certain personal concern, because one of my clients is a young, very tall, African-American man, with a mental problem. His mother has her own personal private nightmare, which, however, finds its way into the public press a couple of times a year: young Black man starts behaving erratically; somebody calls the police; the police arrive, start yelling and giving orders to establish their authority; young Black man, confused, threatened, and utterly bewildered, fails to respond appropriately, makes a move the police interpret as threatening, and ends up getting shot and killed. So far this hasn’t happened to my client, but I can’t blame his mother for fearing that it could. So do I. Why aren’t the police being trained in grizzly-bear-mollification techniques, which would obviously be appropriate when dealing with people who have mental problems? (Okay, apology here—apparently some such training is being given, at least in Chicago. It just doesn’t seem to have penetrated the Department all the way down yet. Like the training in handling domestic violence complaints, which took about 20 years to make its way through the whole Department. Jody Weis’ current proposal to encourage early retirement among the older generation of Chicago cops may have some hidden benefits.)
Getting back to Gates-gate, we still don’t know all the facts. Did Gates misplace his keys, or just have trouble opening the door after unlocking it? At what point in the incident did he show his ID to the police? What did the police do after that? Where was Gates when he started mouthing off to the police? Was this before or after the police had succeeded in establishing that Gates was on his own property? The answers matter. Once it was clear that Gates legitimately lived in the house, there was no reason for the police to stick around, no matter how Gates was expressing himself.
Regardless of the facts in this particular all’s-well-that-ends-well case, it would be a good idea to establish once and for all the principle that the police have no business using their arrest powers merely to maintain their own authority against mouthy civilians. We can clear up the racial rights and wrongs later, but can’t we at least stop adding fuel to the fire in the meantime?