June 27, 2009

Sometimes A Jerk Is On Duty

A few years back I was involved in a family dispute and the police was called. Initially the police determined that there was no need to escalate the incident and they left the scene. About one week later two detectives show up at my door stating they wanted to talk to me. It was a Thursday and I happen to be home from work. I answered the door and let the detectives in. We stood in my kitchen and I spoke with them openly about the incident that took place a week earlier. They informed me that I had to go to the station with them to be fingerprinted because I had a warrant. I obliged, I had nothing to hide and wanted to cooperate. Coincidentally my daughter forgot her keys when she left for school that day. I informed the officers that my daughter was at school, she did not have a key and I would be the only person available to let her in the house when she returned at around 3:30 pm. She was twelve, it was around 11am and the police station was a five minute drive from my house, since I was only going to get fingerprinted I felt confident I would be home in time. I got dressed and followed the officers as they led the way to the elevator and down the seven floors to the lobby. I was not in handcuffs and followed the officers willingly. Once we exited the elevator, and there were some neighbors standing in the lobby, one of the police officers said in a loud whisper right in my ear but loud enough for the neighbors to hear “you better not act up because you’re under arrest”. I was startled by the comments as I looked him in the eye, I could see how his actions could arouse a quick tempered person; he was clearly trying to spark a reaction from me. My mood began to change and I made a conscious decision to remain calm, I did not want to get shot I didn’t know if I had a trigger happy cop. I followed the officers to their car and was driven to the precinct station.

I was then placed in an interrogation room where I recounted the events as I saw them and answered countless questions for approximately one hour. I asked if I was going to be put into jail they said no they just wanted to check my fingerprints, get my version of events and give me a court date. They asked me to sign a statement and I told them I would not sign anything they had my verbal statement. I requested to have the fingerprints taken because the officers explain they would have to check to see if I had any outstanding crimes against my prints and that would take time, I told the officers again that I needed to be home by 3:30 pm to let my daughter in the house. The officers mouthed the words expressing they would be done in time for me to get home to my child but I could tell by their attitude they did not mean it.

I was asked question after question for what seemed to be another hour; I was yelled at, called names, and even poked. They seemed to be looking for a certain answer. When I dared to raise my voice I was told to be quiet and I did not have the right to raise my voice even though I was being verbally assaulted by the officers. They questioned me about everything even other activities in the neighborhood none of which had anything to do with my case and it was obvious I had no knowledge of them. They just seemed to be fishing, operating in their own little realm of reality. When I realized that they had no intentions of taking into consideration anything that I told them about being a single mother, about wanting to be there when my child got home from school, when I realized they were not taking into consideration that I had cooperated fully with them I became annoyed and stopped talking, I began to insist my fingerprints be taken so that I could go home and that was willing to talk about. I threatened to file a complaint; I asked for a pen and paper and began taking notes, documenting my treatment while in police custody. When I asked to go to the rest room one of the officers even had the audacity to tell me that I could leave my notes in the room, the nerve.

At approximately three pm my fingerprints were finally taken, around six pm an officer came and told me that I was free to go. I was in police custody for seven hours for a bench warrant in a domestic dispute. A dispute the police admitted to pursuing only because the other party insisted. I was let go without going before a judge and having a bail hearing. In other words this was no serious offense, but they held me unnecessarily for seven hours for something that should have taken one or two hours at most. I was pissed and I wanted to file a complaint but all I could think about was the fact that my child was outside for about three hours and I hurried home. Being a single mother and not wanting to get caught up in anything that would take me away from work or my child I did not follow up with a complaint about the harassment I received while in custody because I thought it would be a long losing battle.

I tend to believe that the way the police treat people like me is an institutional problem. I remember once my car was stalled and I needed a jump to get started. I flagged a police unit and explained to the officers my situation; they told me that they could not give me a jump because their vehicle was restricted from doing so. I remember wondering if I were in a white community would things have been different.

Last year in New Orleans I was at a Marti Gras parade when a mob started jumping over the barricade and stepping on people who were standing orderly behind the barrier, I was among them. Parade goers started shouting for the officer standing nearby to stop the offenders from jumping over because we were being trampled. I commented that the officer was standing there and not doing anything about it. Well the officer came over to me and started screaming in my face threatened and insulted me and telling me to shut my f-ing mouth. Others in the crowd tried to come to my defense but nothing would stop this officer from using me as an example. Did the fact that I was a black woman and the officers white play a role in how I was treated, maybe. Did I feel like those officers had something against me personally, no I didn’t ---- but I couldn’t help feeling because I was black they cared less about me or my situation. There are many occasions where I was able to observe officers in action and in many cases they were behaving badly ---asserting their position and power---being a jerk.

There are other times when I had to deal with the police where I felt I was treated fairly, would there be a different outcome if I were a different color I don’t know but what mattered is I felt I was treated fairly and respectfully. What I did learn is that it matters who is on duty. It matters who responds to the call or who is writing the ticket because a jerk could show up. I don’t think there is personal bias on the part of all police officers, on the part of some, yes----and I do think there are certain prejudices built into the system, left over from our turbulent history. I get the feeling that there is a culture of acceptance when it comes to discrimination against minorities.

Are you more likely to get arrested or ticketed if you are black or Latino, yes. This tendency for discrimination is adopted by officers no matter the color. These prejudices are played out across the country in random acts of discrimination and police brutality against minorities and the poor. We see it when a man reaches for his wallet and gets shot 41 times, when a black man is raped with a broom stick by white officers. The discrimination was evident in the Central Park Jogger case and recently in Jena. We see it when minority defendants are given twice the prison time at sentencing as their white counterparts. These cases gave me the impression there was a predisposition towards minorities as inherently bad people, so if you use excessive force or antagonizing tone it’s okay.

But most officers are just doing their job while some officers are just jerks---an attitude with a gun, a license to shoot and searching for a reason. In the incident between Professor Gates and Officer Crowley it is clear that Crowley did not follow his training, but sought to impose his authority. In his report and by his own admission Officer Crowley did not immediately identify himself or why he was at the professor’s residence. According to Crowley he was “standing in plain sight of this man”, but he only asked the professor to come outside to talk to him and the professor said he would not---It was only after the professor demanded to know who he was that officer Crowley gave his name and informed the professor that he was investigating a call reporting a burglary. What was Officer Crowley’s tone and manner when he approached the professor? We know Officer Crowley did not like the way the professor was talking to him, the professor was demanding identification from him, talking about his mother and complaining about being a black in America.

I am shocked that officer Crowley led sensitivity training---where was his sensitivity in this incident. He had “determined that Gates was lawfully in the house” but was “confused by the behavior he exhibited towards me”---Crowley’s words. And while Crowley has a right to feel the way he does, and why did the professors have to pay for his confusion? Maybe Crowley should have taken it up with the therapist that we pay for. Why should the professor be arrested because the officer was emotional? The professor was obviously not a burglar or a hostage because he produced identification and was moving about his home quite freely; at that point there was no evidence to support a burglary. Why did Officer Crowley enter Professor Gates home without permission? All he had on hand was an angry “older male” in his own home yelling about being a “black man in America” this is where officer Crowley’s sensitivity training should have come to fruition, instead he lost his cool and essentially wasted taxpayer money by arresting the professor. Maybe officer Crowley should have waited for fellow officers to arrive on the scene. Maybe a citation would have been more appropriate instead of an arrest, after all Professor Gates was standing on his front porch exercising his freedom of speech.

It is hard to distinguish good cops because when there is a bad one, the force forms a shield, protecting them with the blue wall. It is the wall of blue that is more dangerous than a bigoted cop. The thing that bothers me the most when I see these acts of intimidation by the police is how hard it is to root out the corrupted and the bigoted. I think about the fact that we pay their salaries; I am upset when I see an obnoxious officer. That’s why it matters who is on duty not only because we pay their salary but an officer like Crowley could show up at your door, an officer who leads sensitivity training but is still confused. You could get a cop like Mark Furman who admitted to having aggression towards minorities especially blacks, is suspected of planting evidence, now he is a television consultant and considered an expert on matters pertaining to law enforcement.

Could a black officer have the same success as Mark Furman? I don’t know, but I do know that a black officer is just as likely to act out one of these random acts of discrimination as their white counter part, because when it comes to the police the color that binds is blue. Even though some black officers experience discrimination by their co-workers, they tow the line when one of their fellow officers is accused of misconduct. I’m not sure if Crowley had a chip on his shoulder and because of the blue wall we won’t know, but we pay him to stay cool and exercise discretion and I don’t think he did.

Crowley was being a jerk, because even when other officers arrived on the scene he did not remove himself and hand off to one of them. He knew his presence was upsetting to the professor. Maybe an officer with a cooler head, tougher skin and adherence to protocol would have made a difference. Part of leadership is knowing when your presence is not helping a situation, but based on Mr. Crowley’s action I have the suspicion he already concluded he was going to arrest the professor so continued to agitate him. I have no doubt that Officer Crowley requires additional training. I do commend officer Crowley because the professor did not end up like Eleanor Bumpers or Sean Bell, so I guess there is an upside.

I was insulted by the behavior of the Boston Police after President Obama made his commentary; I think we got a glimpse of what the professor might have gone through. The message transmitted by the force seems to be; talk about the police and you are going to have all of law enforcement to contend with. I thought the press conference held by the union and police officials was a disgrace and I hope it was not paid for with taxpayer money. Their loyalty was to the uniform and not the public; I felt I was watching celebrity wannabees. Why can’t we critique the police are they above the law? Why is there absolution when it comes to the police force, aren’t they mere humans? In this case they behaved “stupidly” and because Obama said so they launched an attack against him. This is just an example of the intimidation felt by citizens daily from the police. The actions by Crowley and the police force after Obama's statement led me to question Crowley’s version of events. When Obama reached out to him by phone Crowley and the force wanted more, they weren’t satisfied with just a phone call and in a way bullied Obama into having beers right in front of our eyes. Now Obama has to take valuable time out of his day to stroke the ego of the police.

Yes this is our tax dollars at work, that’s why it matters who is on duty, and it matters who we give a badge and gun. There are too many incidents of brutality towards the general public from the police. Serving and protecting the public is a privilege and should only be awarded to the finest among us. The police force is no place for an egomaniac with sensitive skin. An out of control police officer is no different than the criminals they pursue; they are both a menace to the society.

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