Saturday, August 16, 2014

Epiphany #57: A Healthy Distrust

I have grown up with a distrust of the police--a mixture of emotions that doubts both their motives and actions, combined with fear and danger.

Admittedly, that is not necessarily their fault.  Having begun my teenage years at the end of the 60's, my encounters my encounter with police were rare and unpleasant, often for reasons aimed directly at me or my friends.

I remember the time Craig and I were walking along a road and a police car drove past and Craig muttered "Pig" under his breath, but apparently loud enough to be heard, because the car slammed to a stop and he was subjected to a chewing out by the officer.  I remember times when the appearance of police patrol cars caused heart-pounding fear, but only because we were carrying something we shouldn't have been carrying or because we were in a city park doing what we weren't supposed to.

But I also remember the times.  Everyone knows that the Vietnam War was on television, but so was the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, and the harsh response to those protests, and others before and after, has always stayed with me when I see a police uniform.

In 1980, when I was in Santa Cruz and my friend disappeared, likely to commit suicide, the belittling nonchalance of the Santa Cruz cops who though they had seen and knew everything in return told me everything I needed to know between the divide between jaded law enforcement and my own naïveté.

Even though police have come to my assistance several times since then (and I have publicly thanked them for it), I can't shake my ongoing impression that, for the most part, they are a necessary evil who do a job that may sometimes help.

The irony of my enjoyment of cop shows, cop novels, cop movies, does not escape, although I can also explain that pretty easily:  in fictitious settings, police act like people.  In real cities like mine, they stop black drivers on streets and highways an overwhelming percentage of the time, in my anecdotal experience, an observation backed by an number of studies and specifics.

For someone like me who has his own issues with authority, the problems with the police are fairly obvious.  That may not click with the populace in general, but here goes.

First, The police have been given too much power.  At least since the days of Nixon, police have gained ever-expanding abilities to engage in collateral behaviors that enhance their main purpose at any given moment.  Do you think they could always search your car just on a suspicion?  Do you think that they could always prosecute crimes in the wrong house that they burst into by mistake?  There's a cavalier attitude that results from that.  Especially if you might be guilty of "Driving While Black."

Second, I fear that police engage in "objective bias" (my term).  They hide behind the law to justify their actions, but enforce the law at their own whim.  So any law can and, in their minds, should be enforced, but it isn't enforced in the same way for everyone, and for some it may not be enforced at all.  In a broader perspective,this means that some laws, like the responses to the Civil Rights movement in the South, get enforced whether they are moral or not.  See Thoreau.

Finally, many of them are burned out.  When you see what you think is the same thing time after time, you will develop a standard, jaded response to it.  Like what I once experienced in a California town full of runaways and Deadheads.  And when your response becomes compartmentalized and departmentalized, your sense of humanity falls away.  And what happened in Ferguson can happen.

Now, do I blame the police for all of this?  Well, not really.  Or, at least, not entirely.  I can't imagine a more difficult job with less impressive pay and more confusing standards.  Post-60's and post-9/11, we as a society have handed our police some of the keys to the kingdom.  And we seem surprised that they want to open so many doors without supervision.   Now, it seems that we have also handed them a bunch of military toys, and again, we are shocked that they want to use them.

I'm afraid it is a societal problem.  I condemn the individual behaviors of individual policemen and departments as much as anyone, and maybe more, but I also think they have been dealt a bad hand to try to deal with people who may well have an even worse hand.  I'm scared about what we have allowed them to become.

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