Policing in the United States

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I was in my local library, reading back issues of the Economist, one of my favorite publications.  The present issue’s cover story was about policing in the United States.

One major discussion has been about racial profiling.  I can now safely tell you I have been profiled.  I am an American who is Jewish, but cannot be identified as Jewish (do not wear a kippah, have a beard, or hair over the ears, called payess).

police profilingAs a twenty something, I didn’t dress well, and I am heavy and muscular.  One night, my father sent me to the local subway station to meet my mother and walk her home.  I was waiting for a while for Mom.  Apparently, I made the token clerk nervous, because the next thing I knew, a police officer was there and never took his eyes off me, until my Mom came upstairs.

Fast forward a few weeks.  My then brother in law and I were waiting on the platform of the same subway station.  Saying we were dressed grunge like is being charitable.  To add to that, my ex brother in law is six foot five.  The only other passenger on the platform was a young woman about our age.  Then what do I see?  The same cop!  I whispered in my brother in law’s ear, “That’s the same cop, who I told you about who was watching me several weeks ago.”  The cop never took his eyes off us, until we boarded the train.

My point?  Anyone can be profiled for any reason.  You can’t ask each police officer you may have dealings with what his life experiences and prejudices are.

Yes, a police officer needs a certain degree of training and has to be checked psychologically, before being hired.  There is still a human factor.

This is for another article, but I must make a confession.  I have also been arrested, but that is for a book I am planning and how to help one time arrestees with no previous record not have that experience again.  I can make fun of it now and I must be honest, the police officers who arrested me were helpful and gracious.  Again, this is for a later book.

Later, my wife and I went through the Tucson Citizens Police Academy, which involved a semester of learning about the police.  The officers teaching us were very dedicated to their jobs.  Again, each officer is an individual.

Before I read this week’s Economist, the latest Mother Jones issue caught my eye.  The cover story was “Are you a racist?”  As I keep writing about my Rwandan friend Anastase, and his family, I would like to think I’m not.  The article spoke about genetics and how we react to certain things, but it had two pictures, one a white man, one a black man, both of who looked to have handguns.  I realized if this was a test of my instant reactions, I shot the black man, without hesitation.  I shot the white man as well, but after the black man, a split second later.

Then, I took time out to look at the pictures.  The white suspect, was young grungy and hanging out under a dark awning.  He looked the way I described myself in the beginning of this essay.   The black man was kneeling on a sunny lawn and he was well dressed.  I thought of CNN anchor Don Lemon talking about being profiled.  This is a prominent man, and he has problems.  The first thing that went through my mind after looking at the pictures was, “Well done, fool.  You’ve just shot CNN anchor Don Lemon.  Try living THAT one down!

Several days ago, President Obama and the First Lady talked about being profiled in the past.  If the President was wearing a tuxedo, people thought he was a valet, and handed him the car keys.  The First Lady discussed many a taxicab passing them by.  The Mother Jones article talked about the genetic part, (I’ve been reading lately how quickly human genomes change, more so than previously thought).  Many of you have heard the song from the musical South Pacific “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.”  Apparently, you have to work to train your mind away from certain favoritism.

I will start with my take on the latest police shooting cases in the United States.  I am taking a narrow view and not covering the issues surrounding the cases.

Michael Brown:  The evidence showed Michael Brown attacked Officer Wilson in the police car.  I have not covered how Officer Wilson feels, whether the governor should have appointed a special prosecutor, or whether there should have been a Grand Jury in the first place.

Eric Garner:  If Eric Garner had not resisted, he would not be dead now.  I understand the chokehold is illegal, but it would not have gotten to that, without the resistance.

Why am I bringing this up?  Each situation is individual, but having said that, there are issues.

Again, each officer is an individual, but the Economist article stated 42% of the known cop killers are African-American.  Which person is the cop more likely to shoot?

63% of whites support the police, only 37% of African-Americans do.  I know I want to be able to call 911 and trust the officer.  All Americans should have the same trust.

The article mentioned half of the local police forces in the United States have ten sworn officers or fewer.  It makes it hard to discipline officers.  Many police forces now have all sorts of military equipment.  That provides barriers between the police and the citizens they are supposed to protect.  After the Boston Marathon Bombing, when the suspect was taken into custody, the departing police vehicles were cheered as they left, one reporter said, “We are annoyed, when we see the blue lights behind us, when we are driving, but want them there, when needed.”

The article recommended independent investigators for police shootings.  A local District Attorney has to work with those police officers and it’s hard for him to jeopardize those relations and go against them.  New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio was asked not to attend police funerals.  See? The issue can be difficult.

To conclude, I highly respect the men and women in blue.  There are bad apples as there are anyway.  I’ve learned to be more sympathetic to how certain groups can be treated by individual officers.  I enjoy the Economist and think their recommendations for American policing will help.

Note: This is outside my usual realm, but I do write the occasional essay.

6 Comments
  1. Andrew JSacks says

    “If Eric Garner had not resisted, he would not be dead now.” Unbelievable view! You think the officers acted appropriately? Incredible.

  2. Daphne Shapiro says

    I have to agree with Andrew.
    You seem to defend your view with having been profiled yourself, and with being of Jewish descent.
    The latter should make you extremely cautious for making excuses for the police officers involved, as history could easily repeat itself when people with our background (*) start condoning this!

  3. Andy Bachman says

    It’s hard to imagine someone like you say this, Mike. Especially because I really enjoyed your previous work on Angie’s.

  4. Joyce White says

    What a person does in the heat of argument isn’t always a normal response. The police can turn into bullies easily but they are like the military. What about boxers who get in the ring to maim their opponent? Police response must be quick and final to not aggravate the situation. I am more afraid of mob violence which is premeditated and always perpetrated on the innocent..

  5. tucsonmike says

    Thank you for your comments, and please allow me to respond. Andrew, Eric Garner would not be dead if he had not resisted. I stand by that. I stated, I took a very narrow view, and never went into whether the cops did anything wrong in arresting him. I neglected to mention poor Akai Gurley, shot in a Brooklyn stairwell. That WAS the cop’s fault. Well and the New York Housing Authority does not help by keeping its stairwells dim, but that is an entirely different story. I try to look at these things case by case. The cops are not always right.. Andy why is it someone like me saying this strange? I try to take neither a “conservative” nor “liberal” view, but analytical. What, how, why? Joyce, you bring up an interesting point. Many of our police officers are ex military. Not sure, whether that is a problem in itself. The responses are quick. The closest I ever came was the Tucson Citizens Police Academy on the firing range, going through buildings with simulations of various threats. It has to be that sudden. Oh by the way, I don’t like the term “liberal” but “explorer.” That will be my next essay. Daphne, agreed, I am not so naïve as to believe the tables can’t be turned on us.

    How to solve this? Local District Attorneys cannot investigate these for two reasons: 1. Our criminal justice system is based on “wins.” If you follow baseball it is like a pitcher’s won/loss record. 2. The District Attorney has to maintain friendly relations with the cops. A Federal Investigation, including retired police officers, experts in other cases, depending on the case.

    I still stick by my premise, regardless of the cop behavior arresting him. Eric Garner would be alive now, if he didn’t resist. Are the cops who tried to arrest him bigots, or is the cop who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri racists? Maybe. Maybe not.

    Getting rid of all the military hardware cops have been given would help. Otherwise, they WILL become an occupying army. Please feel free to comment to this.

  6. Andrew JSacks says

    Daphne, you are a voice of reason.

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