Friday, July 31, 2009

Gates' Arrest Inspires Other Cops To Be Jerks

Professor Skip Gates' arrest in Boston, the "clink heard round the world," has had the curious effect of causing other police to step up and act like even bigger jerks than the cop in the original incident.

While the details of the Gates case are still not clear - we don't know exactly what transpired between the two men - what is clear is that police arrested someone who was trying to get into his own house. He may have acted like a pompous jerk when confronted by the Boston cop, but at the end of the day, the constitution generally permits us to act like pompous jerks.

Additionally, Gates was arrested while trying to get into his own house after returning from a trip. To China. He's probably been sandwiched between two fat smelly people for the last 16 hours. Most likely with a screaming baby two rows behind him. I would probably be pretty irritated already. Then he found he'd locked himself out of his house. If it was me, actually, I'd probably have started crying at that point, or running up and down the street gibbering incoherently.

So I'm sure the last thing I'd want is to have a cop approach me with the assumption that I was a burglar, despite obvious signs to the contrary. Namely, his baggage from his trip. Oh yeah, and his driver's licence with his home address on it. So no matter how much of a race-card-pulling, holier-than thou, smug, pretentious jackass Gates may have acted like during the course of this incident, it is very hard to imagine a set of circumstances that would be reasonable grounds for arrest.

Quite simply, he pissed off a cop. While anyone who doesn't want to spend half a day at the police station knows that you should avoid pissing off cops whenever possible, it's not against the law, and he should not have been arrested.

So, in the wake this incident which is certainly nothing less than supremely embarrasing for the Boston police department -- I mean really, they got bitch slapped by the President -- other policemen have decided to show their solidarity for the rights of policemen to use their power to arrest anyone who pisses them off.

First, another Boston Cop decided to speak out with apparently a letter to the editor of the Boston Globe defending the original, highly controversial, racially-charged incident by referring to Gates as a banana-eating jungle monkey. Wow. That's a brilliant move. Right when most of the free world thinks that the Boston police department is a bunch of racist assholes, you go and... er... confirm that. You, sir, are not afraid to proudly represent the lowest common denominator.

The best part? He used the classic "some of my best friends are [insert race or culture that you've offended]" defense when called out on his obvious bigotry. I am not joking. From CNN:

I regret that I used such words,” Barrett told CNN affiliate WCVB. "I have so many friends of every type of culture and race you can name. I am not a racist."

So moving on to this weekend, now here in DC. A gay man is on U Street with a couple friends, actually talking about the Gates incident. In the course of his conversation, he says "I hate the police." It was late. He was probably loud. Based on some of the comments I read about this story, he is probably an obnoxious jerk.

But all he did was say "I hate the police." A cop overheard him from across the street and ran over and started hassling him because of his statement. Which I am pretty sure everyone would agree is not only constitutionally protected, but something the vast majority of us have said at some point. If not weekly.

Yo. Cops. Why do you think people hate you? Because you act like the goddamn lunch-money stealing bully in fifth grade! If you don't want to be despised then start acting like a professional and stop acting like a testosterone-soaked power-tripping asshole. Maybe people wouldn't say crap like that if you didn't give us so many reasons to do so.

So anyway, to make a long story short, the cop calls him a faggot, roughs him up and finally arrests him on "disorderly conduct" charges. Which is basically the "one size fits all" charge for the cops to use anytime they get pissed off at someone, and feel like throwing their weight around.

Congratulations, DC police. In the most supremely ironic display of jackassery yet, you actually arrested someone on the same charge as Gates, for expressing their distaste of the police over their handling of the Gates incident.

Wow. Just. Wow. Way to one up the Boston cops, who pretty much had locked the prize for village idiot down. But not content to just be bad at being police in general, you had to sweep in and manage to make DC cops look even worse than those fools in Boston.

Nice going. Well, I guess "policing" fits nicely next to "baseball" and "schools" in the list of things that we do worse than everyone else.


Capitol Hill 20210 said...

Sigh, we aren't all that bad -- and with the Gates incident, he refused to show his ID to the police in the beginning, I would have arrested him too on suspicion until he could provide proper identification. Gates should have cooperated. This is a subject I have avoided blogging on. lol.

The DC cops were in the wrong, I can't tell you the number of times when I was on patrol I used to get flicked off -- I just laughed at it and waved at them.

Jamie said...

I don't think cops are all that bad. But really, it just keeps coming up. There is a culture of power abuse. While most officers may be good and not do this, there are clearly plenty who who feel differently. This needs to NEVER happen.

In the gates case, the arrest took place after he provided ID. It was a disorderly charge. The cop was obviously making a point: I can f*ck with whoever I want. A good officer, once realizing that this was not a break-in, would have just walked away regardless of how antagonistic Gates was. Being irritable and antagonistic is really not a crime, and it's not even unexpected that in that circumstance, Gates might have been pretty riled up already.

That is my problem. The officer chose to exercise (abuse) his power with the disorderly conduct charge. Had the officer never shown up, there would never have been any disorderly conduct, if his conduct even violated the law. The cop should have just let it go once he realized that he was not a criminal - and given his luggage that should have been his assumption in the first place.

Why can't we have a cop who said, calmly, how can I help you get in your house, instead of fanning the flames and creating a situation?

lacochran said...

Wow, indeed.

It's a terribly hard job to be a cop and these asshats don't help make the job any easier.

McGruff said...

99% of officers give the rest a bad name

Mike Licht said...

Can't say much about the email idiot, but the other abuses of police power you describe are in the "Contempt of Cop" category, as does the Gates incident.

See my take at:

Jamie said...

@Mike, I agree that the racism angle of the incidents is blown out of proportion. I wasn't trying to focus on that, except to the extent that the email guy was a fool. Contempt of cop is a good term. And it doesn't matter if you're black or white or spotted, if you talk back to a cop you're likely to get yourself taken to the station.

It would be nice if cops understood that being in a bad mood, or even being a jerk, is not against the law. We would all be a lot better served if police tried to defuse these situations instead of escalating them.

FoggyDew said...

I agree with Zip on this one. Gates was in the wrong. The Cambridge cop, not Boston, is recognized as one of the best cops around and you actually aren't allowed to mouth off to a cop.

Cops do a dangerous job and when someone starts ranting and raving at them they have no idea what's going to happen next. The best way to control the situation is to slap on the cuffs. That'll usually calm someone down in a hurry.

It's not abuse of power, its survival. If you're polite you don't have to worry about having your mug shot taken.

Jamie said...

"If you're polite you don't have to worry about having your mug shot taken."

I really, really hope you don't think that it's perfectly fine that one can be arrested for being impolite to a cop.

I am pretty sure that the cop in either of these incidents was not acting for "survival" purposes.

FoggyDew said...

When I say impolite I mean ranting and raving at the cop which, according to reports, Gates was doing. You can even hear him in the dispatch tapes as the cop's calling the arrest in. That takes some effort.

I'm not so sure about the one in DC either, but seriously, arguing with or insulting a cop is just plain stupid. You're going to lose every single time. Doesn't matter who's right and who's wrong, you're going to lose. Cops have a hard enough job without having to deal with ignorant, drunken idiots.

Jamie said...

I agree with you that it's stupid. I wouldn't do it intentionally. But it is still not against the law.

The point of my explaining Gates' situation is to try to make the reader understand how they could possibly, one day, find themselves in a situation of losing their shit at a cop even though they weren't doing anything wrong.

I understand how to avoid being roughed up by a cop. That doesn't mean I think it's OK for cops to use their power to win arguments when they feel like it. Just because they have to deal with real criminals is no justification for locking up people who piss them off. That argument is a very, very slippery slope. It is used all the time to justify illegal actions by police. Anyone who really thinks it's OK will probably change their mind the first time it happens to them.

Mark said...

Clearly there can be a BIG difference in cases of "ranting and raving"... Case 1, you stop somebody for reasonable grounds (pull them over, or ask for ID when they're jimmying the door to a house) and if they react in a threatening manner then the person is in the wrong, and the police officer is in the right to throw the cuffs on if they feel the situation is getting out of control. (The problem with the Gates case was really that this was an old guy with a cane - how threatened did this cop feel?)

Case 2, you hassle somebody for no good reason - e.g. they state an opinion in a private conversation you don't agree with, you detain somebody because of a mistaken identity, etc. In this case the person has every reason to be upset or angry, and the cop should act accordingly even if they are "within the law" to arrest them.

Most times these situations are dealt with by either a wronged citizen being deferential (not confrontational) to a police offer (as blacks have learned to do for decades), or the officer overlooking the bad behavior of the citizen (as they have probably done for even longer). The problems usually arise - as in the Gates case - where both parties feel they are "in the right," so neither is willing to defer.

While I have a slight bias for the police - they usually arrive just trying to do a tough job, involving unkind people in an often unpredictable and sometimes dangerous environment - I do think that many of these situations are brought on by their own actions. Specifically, police officers are trained to "take and maintain control of a situation" quickly and forcefully. This often means they enter an unknown situation, with an assumption of moral superiority on their part and a suspicion of antisocial behavior on the part of the citizen in question, and then engage that citizen in a rather bullying fashion - as they are trained to do. Needless to say, this often generates strong feelings of resentment...

In short, it's tough being a police officer - you deal with 100 crackheads, thieves, wife beaters and gang members a week, hurling abuse at you, while kindly answering questions from tourists on your lunch break. Then one day you "slip up" and make a bad judgment call. And that makes the evening news. But that's the nature of the job! Like being a security officer at a port checking for smuggled nuclear weapons. Do it for 10 years, check 1 million containers, each time finding nothing. Then one day you miss "the one." And the world hates you and thinks your incompetent.

I teach. Believe me, I screw things up in my job all the time. All that happens is that my kids don't learn something as well as they could have. But that's why I chose that job and not being a police officer or a customs inspector. If I had chosen to be a police officer, I would suck up the fact that there is a responsibility that comes with the right to shoot people with state sanction - which is that sometimes you have to be the more generous party and back down.

Jamie said...

@Mark, I basically agree with you. The argument that one sees in favor of the cops has to do with the necessity to act quickly and the possibility that one's life is always at risk. I am sympathetic to that.

I can say with certainty that in the Gates case, the cop never for a second thought Gates was a threat to his life. This was all about making a point. So it doesn't matter at all to me how much of an ass he was. There's no law that says you can't be an ass to a cop- especially in your own home.

But you're right. Most of the time we get out of this by saying "please sir, thank you sir, may I lick your cop boots sir?" For most people, that is preferred to spending the afternoon downtown. But just because that's the "smart" thing to do to avoid an incident when you've done nothing wrong, does not mean it's an acceptable situation. And the consequences to our society of this abuse of power reach far beyond someone being humiliated for and having a few hours of their time wasted. These cases are only the surface. If someone actually fit a profile of some kind, unlike these guys, it could (and is often) a lot worse.