WHERE BAD COPS COME FROM

Sam Smith

Whenever anything like the Gates incident arises, we spend an inordinate amount of time assessing blame and hardly any discussing remedies.

Calling someone a racist doesn’t cure anything. In fact, racism is normal. That isn’t to say that it’s nice, pretty, or desirable. Only that suspicion, distrust, and distaste for outsiders is a deeply human trait. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict wrote that “all primitive tribes agree in recognizing [a] category of the outsiders, those who are not only outside the provisions of the moral code which holds within the limits of one’s own people, but who are summarily denied a place anywhere in the human scheme. A great number of the tribal names in common use . . . are only their native terms for ‘the human beings,’ that is, themselves. Outside of the closed group there are no human beings.”

Many attempts to eradicate racism from our society have been based on the opposite notion — that those who harbor prejudice towards others are abnormal and social deviants. Further, we often describe these “deviants” only in terms of their overt antipathies — they are “anti-Semitic” or guilty of “hate.” In fact, once you have determined yourself to be human and others less so, you need not hate them any more than you need despise the fish you eat for dinner. This is why those who participate in genocide can do so with such calm — they have defined their targets as outside of humanity.

What if, instead, we were to start with the unhappy truth that humans have always had a hard time dealing with other peoples, and that much ethnic and sexual antagonism stems not from hate so much as from cultural ignorance and narcissism? Then our repertoire of solutions might tilt more towards education and mediation and away from being self-righteous multi-cultural missionaries converting yahoos in the wilds of the soul. We could turn towards something more akin to what Andrew Young once described as a sense of “no fault justice.” We might begin to consider seriously Martin Luther King’s admonition to his colleagues that among their dreams should include that someday their enemies would be their friends.

Even if racism played a major role in the Gates incident, it probably wasn’t the only factor. For example, one reader asks if there wasn’t the smell of a class divide in the confrontation between a Cambridge cop and Harvard professor, with the white guy on the lower end of the economic ladder.

The most common form of police misbehavior is bullying. The target need only be someone who is perceived as vulnerable, with blacks, gays and young teens all in the pool. Blacks are extremely common victims but they are far from the only ones.

As our policing has increasingly moved to a military model and with cops often being from the lower economic and social strata, the bullying approach has tremendous appeal. One’s size and blanket of weaponry reorganize one’s place in society and are tempting to use in full force.

Unfortunately, neither scolding nor paper regulations have much effect. If the officer in the Gates case were to be punished, it would probably just increase the hostility of other officers towards those perceived as weak and who have no access to the national media.

Having been briefly a federal law enforcement officer while in the Coast Guard and having covered the ethnically divided town of DC for many decades, this is a matter that has long fascinated me. If you strip away the cliches and watch actual behavior, you start to see things easy to pas unnoticed.

For example, the DC police department changed from having only one top level black officer and with white cops refusing to share their cars with black officers to a department run by a series of black chiefs. On average these chiefs did a better job than the white ones (including the current white woman) in part because they had an instinctive feel for creating better ethnic relations and the officers under their command soon learned the sort of behavior that was expected. I suspect, however, that it made another difference: it increased the respect black officers had for themselves and with which white officers treated black citizens.

Sometimes things slipped back, as when a bunch of white West Virginia officers were hired to overcome a shortage on the force. It wasn’t that the West Virginia officers couldn’t have been better; it was just that at the time no one really cared that much.

It is part of the liberal canon that wrong thinking people stay that way. In fact, people tend to behave the way they are trained to behave and the way those leading them tell them to behave.

Obviously, there will be exceptions but in a normal community these people become social rogues rather than the norm.

So the first way to get a good police officer is to have good lieutenants, captains and chiefs.

The second necessity, and one that is massively ignored, is good and continuous training and the self respect that it encourages.

It shouldn’t stop at the police academy. If it does you end up with a cable TV version of law enforcement in which the cop drifts easily into the role of a bully.

I have argued for decades that every police precinct house and headquarters should have a lawyer – given the rank of captain or above – to be on hand to train the force, mediate conflicts and help officers do their job better.

I watch this in action at a Coast Guard district headquarters where I was stationed. A Lieutenant Commander was the legal officer, but he was much more. Enlisted personnel such as boarding officers would casually drop by his office to discuss problems they had encountered. He was right on top of every little legal issue that arose and he had the autonomy to act based on legal wisdom and not the district commander’s say so.

Only a tiny number of police officers in this country have any access – let alone easy access – to good legal advice. Yet they are supposed to be first government officials enforcing the law. It is bizarre, dangerous and it doesn’t work.

There would be a further advantage to such an approach. As police officers see themselves as well educated agents of our system of law, they would start to have more respect for themselves and, as a result, treat others better.

But as long we treat cops as society’s hired bullies, we shouldn’t be surprised by some of the results.

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