The Gates arrest has brought together some interesting bedfellows. One one side, the standard casual race baiters are having a field day with the assumption that all black men are guiltless and all white cops are brutal racists. And allied with them are the faux “rationalist” libertarians who are having a field day with the assumption that any behavior short of assaulting a cop is a perfectly acceptable expression of sancrosanct liberty and any cop who does not allow it is an agent of the Gestapo. So, we have Al Sharpton piping up:
“I’ve heard of driving while black, and I’ve heard of shopping while black. But I’ve never heard of living in a home while black,” said Sharpton, a New York minister who has made a national name for himself by seizing on cases of alleged racism.”
I occasionally read a fairly popular blog called DailyPundit written by a self-described libertarian named Bill Quick. He opines:
“Arresting Gates after it was established this was his house was merely vindictiveness on the part of cops who hate the notion that anybody can “mouth off” to them – (and no, Kim, “being an asshole” is not a crime) – and especially, this being Boston, that a black man can be permitted to get mouthy.
In other words, yeah, the arrest was racist in nature, uncalled for, and is going to result in a hell of a lot ofpain for those cops and their department. And well it should.”
Though he later backed off the assumption of racism, he continues:
” I guess that is the message that conservatives want to send over the Gates incident: “Don’t express any detrimental opinions about cops, because they have clubs and will beat the shit out of you if you do. And we fully approve of allowing, even encouraging, them to do so.
My reaction? If that is the depths to which American conservatism has sunk, fuck it and the liberty-hating morons who believe and practice it.
And, of course, all of them are projecting their prejudices onto this event and using it for their racial and ideologic hobby horses, regardless of any “rationality” involved. They assume it’s all about race and all about the arrogance of power.
There are real and important reasons why police arrest disorderly folk, having nothing to do with power trips or race. It’s to stop agitated interactions from escalating to the point people get killed. The problem that police (and all first responders) have is that they cannot take for granted all of the assumptions that are inherent in the stereotyped responses noted above.
Not too long ago, I was involved in a group that looked at violence involved in police encounters. I watched a video of a policeman getting killed at a traffic stop. The stop began as a standard encounter — the cop pulled over an older man and asked for his license. The man became belligerent but, as I remember, did give some form of identification. The man continued to lambaste the cop while the officer walked back to the police car to talk on the radio. The man, still ranting, walked back to his pickup, pulled out a rifle, and shot the policeman. Everything, from the initial request for a license, to the dying screams of the policeman, were recorded on the car video.
This was, in fact, the second of such videos I have seen. Both times the presenters indicated points along the way where the police officer wrongly avoided taking more aggressive action with the killer. Both times there were multiple points where the police officer should have arrested or subdued the person who eventually killed them. The *problem* was that in both cases the cop made assumptions about the level of threat based on bad assumptions about the killer — too old, too weak, too benign. In both cases the cops should have taken the people into custody early — well before the belligerence turned fatal. As a forensic pathologist, I have also investigated deaths like this, both where the cop has been killed or when the suspect was killed. In many of these cases, the death would have been avoided by subduing and arresting the suspect early.
The problem is that cops (and EMTs and firefighters) can’t make the cultural assumptions that we all take for granted. The narrative is that since this was a simple break-in investigation, as soon as the police had recognized the person they should have accepted the abuse and left. But they should not. Cops are often called to places for one thing and find another. This is particularly true in drug-related cases where folk who are strung out on drugs (particularly sympathomimetic agents) will act oddly. The poilice may have been called for any number of reasons — possible breakin, noise, person acting strangely, etc. The police arrive, and observe agitated aggressive behavior,. It may be a guy acting like and ass, it may be a guy in trouble. Sometimes people break into their own house because they locked themselves out. Sometimes it’s because they have sympathomimetic poisoning syndrome. In cases of amphetamine-related agitated delirium (a subset of those things that sometimes get called “excited delirium”), the police must quickly decide that the person’s aggression is pathologic, subdue him or her, and get them to a hospital. If they wait until the interaction evolves, the person may well die in custody. Similarly, in cases of domestic violence, the intial call and initial assessment that lead to intervention has to be done quickly. Otherwise things evolve.
So, when the police go to one of these things, they are *not* just looking at a possible break-in. They are looking to see if there’s evidence of life-threatening drug use and its associated agressive behavior. They are noticing that the house is in disarray and checking for evidence of violence. They are looking for inappropriate behavior thay may mean life-threatening delirium. If there are multiple people, there may be domestic violence or other such things. I remember hearing of one case where police were called for a noise complaint, but everything was “fine” when they went to the house — with the exception of a bullet hole in the wall visible from the door.
The Gates narrative is that *of course* none of these things could have been true because this is a Friend of Obama and Harvard Professor. Of course Harvard Professors would *never* use drugs. Of course Harvard Professors would *never* have psychotic breaks. Of courser Harvard Professors would never have any of the myriad causes of delirium. Of course Harvard Professors would never get drunk and violent. Of course Harvard Professors never engage domestic violence. And, of course, liberals (particularly gun control proponents) *never* carry weapons themselves or have their associates do it.
And cops don’t get the benefit of full investigation when they first arrive on the scene. They have to make snap decisions with *very* limited knowledge.
The fact is that Sgt Crowley followed protocol, and that protocol is put into place because when you don’t follow it, occasionally these situations evolve and people die or get hurt. So, the protocols say don’t wait until somebody pulls a knife or a rifle. When cops go into a situation, the one thing they care about is maintaining control of it. If they feel that they are losing that control, then they *must* intervene to maintain it. And it’s a hell of a lot better that some guy who’s acting aggressive gets handcuffed than having him evolve to stepping over a line and getting someone hurt. This isn’t a game and it’s not supposed to be a fair fight.
It’s not that folk get cuffed merely for mouthing off to cops. They get cuffed because getting agitated and acting like an ass is *also* the early stage of processes that lead to dead cops and dead suspects. A cop isn’t your psychiatrist, and he or she isn’t your mother. They don’t have the advantage of knowing the people well or even knowing the circumstances well. They arrive at a scene with minimal knowledge and have to make snap decisions based on incomplete data.
Just like Al Sharpton and Bill Quick, I wasn’t there. But I’ve investigated a bunch of these things that end up with someone dead. And I support these protocols. Indeed, we have the right to free speech. There’s a difference between voicing opposition and displeasure and acting like a person who is working his way into a violent rage. And when cops are in situations where they are not sure what’s going on, it’s appropriate for them to act conservatively. Most of the time, they are not looking at the insults, they are looking at whether or not they suspect seems unusual. The real “tell” in this situation is not what Crowley said, or what Gates said, but in what Crowley’s colleague, a black police officer, said — that Gates as acting “stranger” than he should. That’s what cops key on. it’s not the race, and it’s not the power trip. It’s the *strangeness* of the act. It starts making people think of all the things that can lead to delirium.
Do cops abuse their power? Sure, on occasion. I’m no sock puppet for the police. But not this time. That’s why all the professionals are lining up behind Sgt Crowley. If they don’t, and if they feed into the stereotype that every time a cop intervenes he or she is doing it because he or she is a nazi or racist, then both they and the people they deal with will end up dead. And it has to be the cop who makes that judgment.
It’s possible to engage in dissent without acting like an out-of-control ass working himself up to violence. Maybe, just maybe, that’s a better solution.
A few years ago, some cops took the other tack. They were called because a young man was wandering lost. They arrived to find an older man remonstrating with him trying to get him to come back to an apartment. The boy didn’t voice any fears, and the man said they were simply having a lover’s quarrel. The police didn’t see anything to indicate coercion, so gave them the benefit of the doubt. The man was Jeffry Dahmer and the boy was Konerak Sinthasomphone.
Oh, I know, the people who can’t see beyond their racial stereotypes will call me a racist — it’s happened before — and those who hold onto their irrational ideologic stereotypes will call me a statist. But that’s not where these protocols come from, and that’s not why they are there.