Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Why I Don't (Implicitly) Trust Cops

I read a very interesting blog about a Lieberman "rally" in which cops did everything they could to limit speech and make life hard for honest, polite dissenters. And it got me thinking: I don't trust cops. Sure, there are lots of good ones. Like the time I got a little lost in a part of New Bedford I've never driven through and accidentally went down a one-way street. It was a regular street that suddenly became a one-way and not only was it dark, but I think the one-way street sign was rather small considering it was a major intersection. The cop clearly knew I was lost and had never been in that area before and was very nice, letting me go off the hook. I was really, really sorry.

In fact, I'm not the type of guy one would expect to be writing about this. I was raised to not only respect cops, but to sort of look up to them. I remember walking the beach with my mother when I was little and watching the big, tall cops (they all seemed so tall when I was young) riding horses who loved to drop shit all over the sidewalks. While it was a big mess, it was a nice (albeit expensive) show for the public.

But, as I've grown older and can see things in a new context, so much about those walks on the beach with those big, tall cops just goes to show everyone what's wrong with cops today. It's all about power and the dynamics of authority.

I'm the boss and I'm looking out for everyone and I damn well better be respected on my big, gigantic horse.

Protecting the public is periphery, sort of like a mission statement or the Preamble to the Constitution. It's what cops do, but not actually what all of them are doing. But of course we all know that, whether it's from watching The Godfather, helping African Americans get the right to vote during the Southern Freedom Movement or being arrested for protesting outside the "Free Speech Zone."

Indeed, while I haven't ever been arrested (or committed a crime for that matter), I do know something about all this Free Speech Zone nonsense. In fact, it's one of the real formative examples in my life that showed me just how cops love their power and position.

Almost two years ago, when I was taking a seminar on Campaigns and Elections at UMASS Dartmouth, part of the class was to actually run a real election day poll, which would be reported on local news outlets. Each member of the class was paired up and assigned a location and was asked to take a poll on people as they exited the buildings after they voted.

I was assigned one of the biggest polling areas in New Bedford, a Middle School. As my Professor instructed, I went in to the polling precinct to introduce myself and my partner and told them what we were going to do. The nice, old lady in charge didn't seem to mind - not that it mattered. According to my Professor, whose specialty is the Judiciary and Law, we had every right to be there. My introduction was merely an act of common courtesy.

When my polling partner and I went outside, we walked far away from the entrance because we couldn't interfere with people coming in and out and started our assignment. It wasn't an easy assignment because most people were either in a rush or didn't like telling who they voted for, especially older folks. However, people were generally friendly towards us.

That was until out came the big, bad cop. He immediately started yelling at us and both my partner and I were traumatized. Like I said, I'm a goody-two-shoes. I've never been yelled at by a cop in my life and I doubt my polling partner had either. The cop had no interest in talking, so I could figure out what the hell was going on, only in acting big and tough - like a henchman or something.

Though we had every legal right to be where we were, my polling partner and I backed off and went further away from the building to appease the cop. In fact, we went across the street to the other side of the parking lot, where we'd only be able to talk to a much smaller selection of people. But, just a few minutes after, even that wasn't enough. Suddenly, we were booted off school property and I actually thought I was going to be arrested for doing my homework assignment.

Totally removed from the polling location, our job was useless. We couldn't get anywhere near any voters to ask if they wanted to participate in the UMASS Dartmouth political poll or not. We called our Professor, still panicked, and asked what to do.

He quickly had us move to another location, but it was a small polling station. Furthermore, because of the fiasco with the cop, we missed the entire morning's results. Though the police officer at that polling place was exceptionally nice, the damage was already done. The entire results of the survey were ruined - at least in terms of a "scientific" poll.

It was actually quite sad because it was 25% of my grade. I wasn't marked off for it; indeed, it's a story my Professor likes to tell his classes now. However, it was an experience I was looking forward to. As a person interested in politics, being one of those pollsters for a day was pretty exciting. Not only did I do the actual groundwork, but I followed up by helping compile the results.

However, like I said, those results were flawed - and I was disappointed. We had less than one hundred responses - compared to other polling locations that had as much as four or five times more. Furthermore, because of my results, everyone's results were flawed: suddenly, a large portion of the full tally included data that was collected differently than from anywhere else. Most of my morning data was completely missing, because of that cop. My afternoon data was taken from a different location as the data from the morning - which hurt the results considering a major goal of the poll was to see how each city and even neighborhood voted differently. Furthermore, the Middle School in New Bedford was selected to help balance the other locations in the city which had different socio-economic backgrounds.

So one bad cop did a lot of damage in an effort to kill a public college's political poll, despite the fact that I broke no law and was completely obedient and polite. I gave into the macho authority the cop demanded and still that wasn't enough. By merely being there, he somehow thought I was challenging his authority and he wasn't going to have any part of it. In an effort to get me to leave, he made me go so far away that we could barely see the school. So I had to leave, because (especially back then) I was no Cindy Sheehan.

So I don't trust cops, even if I've never been arrested or have no reason to be afraid. I don't do drugs (I've never even smoked a cigarette, never mind tried pot) or conceal any weapons. I don't steal or commit fraud. Heck, I've never even got a speeding ticket. And, yet, I don't implicitly trust cops: each individual cop has to earn my trust, which is not only sad, but seems corrosive to society.

Of course, I haven't come to this conclusion because of one incident - it's only one personal story which illustrates my point of view. I could have written about how a reporter from the UMASS Dartmouth newspaper ended up in the hospital because of the same type of "less than lethal" crowd control gun that killed a young girl after a big Sox playoff game in Boston. What was he doing? A story on the rally. I could have talked about how a 20 to 23 year old hometown hero jerk ended up on the police force of my hometown, despite the fact that he used steroids and actually had the audacity to bite a teacher just a few years earlier (a teacher I really liked who ended up leaving the school because of the incident). Or I could have even talked about the fact that when I played high school football I was lucky enough to have a parking ticket "erased" because my coach was a police officer.

There are countless examples of how police officers use and abuse their power. When cops abuse their power, even in "erasing" speeding tickets, they abuse the public trust. Trust is everything in a functioning society: it's what separates us from the Congos.

In towns and neighborhoods that are safe, people probably trust police officers a great deal more. In fact, if I had millions of dollars to kill, I'd pay for a study in police-neighborhood atmosphere and see just how that correlates to overall crime statistics. I have a funny feeling that when there's less trust in a community, there's probably more violence. After all, while I'm no Cindy Sheehan, lots of people really love to stick it to the man when the man's an asshole.

A more humble cop should be the standard we all seek to deploy in our streets. Cops shouldn't just be looking for felons in dark clothing, they should become friendly with residents and especially youth. They should be trying to make people NOT want to stick it to the man. Instead of always seeing those cops on their big, tall and expensive horses trot the beach, I'm very happy to see cops on bike - on eye-level with the public and clearly not worried about any weird masculine obsessions while they ride their Treks.


Mark D. Snyder said...

Police are currently and historically a tool of the system that oppresses and keeps people down. Cops are constantly committing crimes of racism, sexism, and homophobia. They are not adequately trained, and the majority of them in my experience act like ignorant bullies.

StunnedVoter said...

I agree with you. I was reading a thread over at kos about Cynthia McKinney and how she's the most evil person in the world because when someone grabbed her from behind, she turned around and pushed him off her and he turned out to be a cop. She shouldn't have pushed him off of her, but he was perfectly justified in grabbing her from behind? This kind of over-the-top fealty to authority figures is difficult to understand. I have three cops on my street and they're nice and everything, but if you're around cops in action for any length of time it's pretty clear IMO that far too many cops exploit the power differential to abuse their authority. It's scary to be yelled at by an authority figure with a gun for no reason, but it's even worse to watch it happen to an elderly person or a young person or any other person, watch them getting confused and flustered and not being able to do anything about it. That kind of stuff should not happen, the culture needs to change.

Ryan Adams said...

I absolutely agree. One of the sad things about this resurgence of the Democratic party, though, is that it's being done concurrently with a fealty to that authority: I'd say at least half, but probably more, of the democratic challengers running for office are veterans. While I fully support veterans running for office, I don't think being a veteran should be required to be able to compete with Republicans on National Security issues. Our ideas should stand on their own, just like Republicans have enjoyed for the past few decades.

Anonymous said...

Talk about power and corruption
the Democratic Party has been in bed with the Police unions in this state for so long it's a common law marriage. Try to get a politician to rescind the requirement that construction sites have an off duty cop standing next to the guys shoveling dirt. We're the only state in the union that requires the construction industry to provide a trough for the cops to feed at ($75 an hour). Other states use flagmen ($15 an hour).

Ryan Adams said...

A good point - for less serious construction sites, I would think a trained flag officer would be fine (and help save Massachusetts millions a year).

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