Cops deserve more respectAs my students confront that most daunting of writing tasks — thinking of something to say — I discourage their easy reliance on recurrent but worn-out writing-class topics like abortion, gun control and TV violence. Instead I urge them to observe the world around them to see what they have to say about it.
By: John Crisp, The Dickinson Press
As my students confront that most daunting of writing tasks — thinking of something to say — I discourage their easy reliance on recurrent but worn-out writing-class topics like abortion, gun control and TV violence. Instead I urge them to observe the world around them to see what they have to say about it.
When they do, surprisingly often they complain about having been harassed by police officers, for no apparent reason, as they drive around the city, minding their own business. Of course, they may have been cruising the city at 3 a.m. and, yes, perhaps they were going a little faster than the speed limit and, OK, maybe they’d had a little to drink.
But the level of their antipathy toward the cop on the beat is occasionally eye opening, and often, as they tell their stories, the “victims” of harassment find solid encouragement from other class members.
I’m not sure why I’m surprised by this. After all, I came of age during a period — the 60s — when police officers didn’t always enjoy the best of reputations or much public respect.
In those days, their public persona was often expressed in one of two ways: Often they were pictured as “the fuzz” and “the man.” Sometimes they were called “pigs,” uniformed, tough-guy thugs, symbols of an oppressive state and corrupt politicians — for example, the police captain that Al Pacino blows away in “The Godfather.”
And at other times the police were represented as doughnut-chomping buffoons: Think Barney Fife, Leslie Nielsen’s Lt. Frank Drebin, or Toody and Muldoon of “Car 54, Where Are You?”
These stereotypes are still in play today, and the average decent cop isn’t left with much territory upon which to stake a claim between these two extremes.
Nevertheless, I take a more benevolent view of police officers, perhaps because in my limited contact with them they’ve always behaved with congenial professionalism. True, I’m a white guy who never speeds, the kind of guy police don’t profile. And blacks and Hispanics unquestionably have much more reason to fear unprovoked harassment than I do.
Which brings us to the Henry Louis Gates episode. Gates’ side of the equation is weighted with our nation’s shameful racial heritage. But officer James Crowley has been burdened with extra baggage, as well, including assumptions about his attitude toward blacks that are probably unjustified.
In some respects, Crowley is the object of our ambivalent way of thinking about the police. Few of us give cops the respect they deserve. We underpay them to do our society’s most unsavory work and we ask them to take significant risks to keep the worst of us in line. We expect them to keep us safe, but when they stop us for speeding, for example, we resent it. And let’s face it, when it comes to traffic safety, we are a nation of lawbreakers.
In fact, our basic instinct toward lawlessness lies much closer to the surface than we’d like to admit, and I suspect that it’s restrained less by our innate decency than by our fear of the sanctions of the state, of which the police are a prominent symbol. The police aren’t the only element of our culture that holds off chaos, but they are on the front line every day.
Precisely what occurred in the Gates incident isn’t clear, and no doubt the missteps connected to it reach all the way to the White House. Enough has probably already been said on that subject.
But the context is worth noting: We regularly ask officer Crowley and his colleagues to carry out one of civilization’s most chilling and daunting tasks, to approach an unknown, potentially dangerous bad guy who’s been reported to be breaking into a house. Would you want to do that, even in broad daylight?
— Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College
in Corpus Christi, Texas.