From Beer Summit to Guilty On All Counts:
Recall Barack Obama’s famous, or infamous, “Beer Summit,” which brought Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Cambridge, Mass Sergeant James Crowley to sit down like civilized men and discuss their differences over brews?
While the event is lionized today as an example of Obama’s ability to bring people together, it went over less well at the time. The President, in particular, drew steep criticism from law and order whites after he characterized the arrest of Gates as “stupid.” Over the years, many of my white conservative acquaintances have interpreted that as Obama calling all law enforcement stupid.
Contemporary news reports characterized Sgt. Crowley as believing police were due deference from the public. While their respective accounts vary, he clearly did not get deference from Gates. In particular, Gates refused to come out of the house. So Crowley arrested him for disorderly conduct. His report stated he was afraid that Gates was a burglar who might have had an armed accomplice in another part of the house, poised to pounce.
He told Gates, later, that he just wanted to go home to his wife and children that night, after which, he claimed, Gates’s eyes filled with compassionate tears.
Suppose he had explained that at the time.
Police expect the public to obey their commands regardless of their apparent logic.
Case in point: Late 80s. We lived in Hollywood, a duplex with a long hallway leading to the bedrooms. One summer night, we leave the front door open to catch a breeze while we retired to the bedroom. Meanwhile, a man walked into the living room and stole my wife’s purse. A neighbor in the apartment next door that overlooks our house saw it. Called police. They caught him quickly, then called us, still blissfully unaware, out to explain what happened. The suspect was already handcuffed in the back of a radio unit.
“Stand over there,” one cop told me. On my own front lawn. He gestured to a spot further away from the police cars.
Hunh…? What did they care where I stood?
Turned out they didn’t want the suspect, a recent parolee for armed robbery, to get a good look at me or my wife. He’d kept asking them, who called the cops?
So it was for my good. I appreciate that. But how hard would it have been to explain?
Bring this up to cops and they invariably say, suppose a car is hurtling towards you, or someone suddenly pulls a gun behind your back? Okay. It’s unavoidable that in sudden emergencies voices take on an urgency that’s impossible to miss. The rationale for demanding boot camp compliance in all situations just isn’t there. Yet, it’s hard for cops to shake. Most people do obey. Those who don’t, or hesitate, set up huge red flags.
Consider Sandra Bland. Most people believe she was arrested for refusing to put out her cigarette. They’re wrong. She didn’t refuse to do anything. She simply asked why. And she didn’t light up until after Encinia made contact, took her license and registration, and went to write the cite. So any BS about him needing to sniff out marijuana or for her to use her smoke as a distraction to pull a weapon falls flat on its mendacious face.
No. She was stressed and pissed off. And, like Prof Gates, she had the audacity to let him know. Especially after he taunted her: You’re angry, aren’t you?
Here my law and order acquaintances point out that Encinia had performed some 1600 similar pretextual stop and cites — i.e., prompting some minor infraction such as pulling up fast on a vehicle as in Bland’s case — in the past year, so obviously, they insist, race couldn’t have been an issue.
Encinia’s tactics had to enrage, oh, no more than 99.9% of the motorists upon whom he preyed. Any who didn’t express some outrage really weren’t doing their jobs as citizens and taxpayers. Sure, the correct course of action is to take the ticket, plead not guilty, and hope the judge realizes it was BS and tosses it. But, face facts, you’re not going to hire Ben Crumb or any other lawyer just to fight a minor traffic cite. After a hundred such cases the judge might tell Encinia to cool it a bit and stop wasting the court’s time with chickenshit offenses. But he was probably, single-handedly raising revenue for the state to a degree where none of his bosses were willing to put on the brakes.
No. She didn’t assault Encinia. It beggars belief that while distraught and being handcuffed, she knew enough to wait until they were out of range of his dashcam for a few seconds to kick him. That was a lie on his part. That was perjury.
Her arrest is also proof of racism because busy-beaver Encinia couldn’t have taken the time to provoke and arrest that many of his other victims and still had time to write 1600 citations in 12 months.
Nevertheless, open POLICE: magazine, search on Sandra Bland, find half-a-dozen articles, and read the hundreds of comments: Bland was crazy, or high on marijuana, or just a disrespectful, mouthy bitch; Encinia was a good, hard-working cop who issued lawful commands, and didn’t deserve to be fired.
And so on….
Now, after reading what tight pals Prof. Gates and Sgt. Crowley became in the wake of that “stupid” arrest; it’s hard to insist that Crowley be demoted or fired as a result. But that is just what ought to have happened. If a cop believes police are due deference from the public — or even the annual sacrifice of a fattened calf — well and good. But acting on that belief, while sworn to uphold a Constitution that includes both the first and fourteenth amendments?
Some police and supporters fire back that crime stats show people of color are more dangerous to police officers and so demand a “firmer hand” or “altered tactics”. Rather than debate dubious statistics, point out instead:
That is the job.
Like this: Suppose you own a commercial fishing boat. You hire a crew. Knowing, as surely you do, that commercial fishing is about the most physically hazardous occupation available in North America, far more so than police work, you still expect your crew to hoist the tackle, shiver their timbers and get out and fish.
Instead, they tell you, No. We’re staying in port. We’re not going to risk our lives. Fish stink anyway. We’ll hit Vons instead. They’ve got a sale on flounder this week.
So, yeah. You hire a new crew.
It’s hard to demand others: Get out there and risk their lives on our behalf. But the public has, in turn, offered power, respect, better pay, and a degree of job security many other workers today can only dream of. Technology has made the job safer. So have tactics (although some of these, the dynamic entry raid, in particular, cry out for serious revamping).
Most importantly, what the public really demands is not risk, but a re-focus on those very same state and federal constitutions all cops take an oath to protect.
What specific demands must the public be prepared to make of law enforcement?
- Refocus on ways in which police activities uphold their state and federal constitutions.
- Emphasize cooperation in all but the direst emergencies and reduce reliance on “command presence” to deal with the public.
- Remind police: your thoughts are your own 24/7, but while on duty, your deeds belong to us; no more “special tactics” in the presence of POC, because, brother-in-blue, that just doesn’t fly here.
- When PBA/PPL advocates bleat “armchair quarterbacking”, remind them that the entire justice system — investigations by detectives, evaluations by prosecutors, trials by judges and juries, none of whom were on the scene — is exactly that, and so what?
Police advocates respond: Copwork is unique, the public just doesn’t get it. Maybe not. Most of us will never know what it’s like to be a thoracic surgeon. But when the sawbones takes out the wrong kidney, leaving the diseased one in place (as sometimes happens), there is, and should be, hell to pay.
With a few notable exceptions, calls for significant reform of police won’t come from elected officials because they rely either on endorsements by police unions, or, for most Democrats, at least not being targeted by said unions. Don’t forget how quickly Obama was forced to change his tune over the Gates arrest.
Demanding political seppuku isn’t realistic.
But where people lead, they will follow.
As my fellow Medium author, Catherine Pugh, Esq. points out, it us, the public that needs to revamp our thinking before we can realistically expect the same from our public servants.