Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Police Power Trip

Regarding the black Harvard professor who was arrested for being mean to a cop, I really don't think this has much to do with race. I'm white, yet I find cops to be terrifying. Because in many respects, they have almost infinite power over your life and are permitted to do things to you that a judge or jury could never ever do.

Like taze you. It would be illegal for a judge or jury to punish you by tazing you, yet cops can do this simply because they don't like your attitude or because you didn't obey them quickly enough or just because you didn't understand what they said. And the only way it will ever be an issue is if it happens to be caught on video, and even then, you're unlikely to get sympathy from many people. And unless you die from it, a large portion of society will agree with the cop that you deserved it, and many people think even the deaths are deserved. Hey, at least he didn't shoot you.

And the thing is, this is all a tricky issue. I mean, cops need to have authority. Yet, they're still our employees. They're there to protect us, not scare us into obedience. And one of the quickest ways to get in trouble with a cop is to remind them of that. They're cops because they like being in charge and doing anything which suggests that they don't have complete control over you really pisses them off. They're like the ultimate street gang, which you just hope you don't get on the wrong side of.

Gates didn't get arrested because he was black. He got arrested because he tried to take control of the situation and cops hate that. While his skin color may have been a factor in his initial treatment, any of us would have been arrested once we tried to take authority away from the cop. Sure, it was Gates' house and he hadn't legally done anything wrong. But he tried to steal authority away from the cop and that's one of the most serious crimes in the eyes of police.

My Run-Ins with the Police

And while I'm sure race might make things worse, I've definitely received poor treatment from cops, yet I've always been a respectable looking white guy.

Like one time when me and a friend were walking along our quiet neighborhood one night and saw cops questioning a car full of guys. And because we were bored, we stood some distance away and watched. We weren't doing anything and weren't even close enough to hear anything they were saying. Yet after the cops dismissed the guys, they came over to us, asked us questions, and made us empty our pockets and show that we had nothing on us. Not because they thought we were doing anything wrong, but because we were watching them and they didn't like that.

Now, if either of us were black, I might assume this had something to do with race. But we weren't, so I can only assume it was part of their power trip. We were in our own neighborhood, actually standing on the edge of the college campus where my friend went to school, yet the cops didn't like that we were watching them. And because they have almost infinite power, they will punish anyone who doesn't do what they like.

My Headlight Offense

More recently, I got pulled over for having a burned-out headlight. Normally, cops won't care about that sort of thing. But this was on a special night in our neighborhood that the police have decided to crack down on, so they were looking for any excuse to pull people over.

And so the cop is questioning me about stupid stuff, like where I lived (even though she had my driver's license) and where I was going; probably trying to decide if I was drunk. But I didn't seem drunk, I guess, so another cop came up and asked me the same pointless questions, while a third cop started shining his flashlight through the tinted windows of my car, hoping to find something (beer cans or stolen TV's, I suppose). Not that they asked permission to search my car, but being terrified of police, I didn't want to create more problems by telling them to stop.

And yes, it took three cops in two cop cars to pull over a dude for a broken headlight in his own quiet neighborhood. They eventually decided I had done nothing wrong and let me go with a warning, yet delayed me almost ten minutes while I was on my way to pick up my daughter from work.

And again, were I black, I might assume this was about race. But because I'm a respectable looking white guy, driving a respectable looking mini-van, in a neighborhood full of respectable looking white people, I know this was about the power trip. The headlight was the excuse to pull me over so they could hope to find something to arrest me for. Needless to say, I replaced the headlight the next day, in order to avoid any future fishing expeditions.

Limitless Authority

And seriously, I can only think of one time when an on-duty cop was actually decent to me, and lots of times that they were complete jerk-offs. I've known off-duty cops as friends and they weren't jerks to me, but even they were a bit frightening. Like one off-duty cop working as a rent-a-cop where I worked who "joked" about using his club to smash my shins while we were watching baseball on his little TV. I knew it was a joke, yet all the same, I didn't think it was particularly funny.

And again, I understand their need for authority. I understand why they act the way they do. And when it's needed, I'm glad that they act the way they do. Yet, this power shouldn't be limitless. There shouldn't be an automatic assumption of innocence on the part of police, in which only a video of the incident can ever get them in trouble. Because I've definitely seen cops try to incite a reaction from the people they're questioning. And they will HATE you if you ask them questions or act like you have rights. To them, you don't.

And without a doubt, they want to arrest you. They want you to do something stupid. They want you to get pissed off and disrespect them or find any excuse to take you in. That's what it's all about. And they don't even necessarily care if the charges are dropped. They got to arrest you, thus firmly establishing their ultimate authority. That's why they became police. And again, while I find it necessary for cops to have authority, this authority shouldn't be nearly as limitless as it is.


Anonymous said...

About the Gates incident being a result of a police power trip... My thoughts exactly. I too believe this incident had less to do with race than it did with a police officer insulted over his perceived lack of respect. The only thing I find amazing is 'why?' no talk show hosts venture to consider the 'police power trip' angle with this incident?!? Perhaps it is too terrifying to consider that some law enforcement officers have way too little patience for the powerless civilians which they serve? --DJ, Waukon, IA

Anonymous said...

The thing white people don't get is while these incidents are inconvenient to them. When you are black it might start out inconvenient and end up with you DEAD!!!!!!

So be thankful that you are white and it was only inconvenient.

Otherwise, love your blog.

Doctor Biobrain said...

Anonymous 2 - Police have been known to kill innocent white people too.

Anonymous said...

It may just be my racial myopia, but I don't recall the last time that made the news.

But I do recall guys going down in a hail of bullets pulling out a wallet or coming out of a club.
I'm sure there are random white people who get killed accidentally by police, just by the probability with the numbers involved.

But if you are stopped by a cop and are white the situation starts off with a level of respect that just doesn't happen if you are black and it can deteriorate rapidly from there.

Now don't get me wrong lots of black people encounter cops everyday and it is rare that this ends with a death. But if you are black or worse yet a black male, you must be aware of death every time you encounter a policeman. And that is something which is simply missing from the incidents in you post. At no point does the possibility of death, or a beating or simply an arrest seriously cross your mind. You just do what the cop asked in a non threatening manner and the situation is resolved. When you are black this isn't always the logical outcome of just following instructions in a non-threatening manner.

If you are black you have to keep in mind that the outcome of any encounter with a cop is unpredictable, from walking away to death. If you are white death or even arrest is simply not a credible outcome if you are not doing anything warranting those outcomes.

Doctor Biobrain said...

Is it really necessary for me to post the clips of harmless white guys being tazed? If I remember correctly, they killed a Polish dude or something last year with tazers.

Now, if you've got some statistics to back up your point, I'll listen. But I just don't find it very convincing that cops kill black people on a regular basis.