Some years ago, I got mugged late at night at an urban train station. I was pretty stupid: I had a friend drop me off to a nearly deserted train station on the most deserted side. Two guys started towards me the moment they saw me, and I remember thinking very clearly that they were going to rob me. I should have turned and headed the other way fast, but I was paralyzed. So I walked toward them, they whipped out a knife, poked me in the stomach, and demanded my wallet. I took it out, they took out the money and handed it back. Though I was basically feeling like it was an out-of-body experience, I asked if I could keep a buck for a phone call. They laughed and gave me a dollar.
I got a good look at both of them, but a second after they ran off, I literally could not see either one in my mind, at all. Not their face, not their clothes. I could tell you they were young and they were black and that’s it. I had no image of them at all. I could remember very clearly the knife poking in my stomach, a small dot of blood under its point. I could see my wallet, and the dollar I got back. I could remember the ground, the lights on the ceiling, the fare machine with its specific blemishes. Not them.
So I went out the other side of the station and there was a transit cop there. I told him I’d just been mugged. He took off and called for backup, telling me to stay put. About fifteen minutes later, he came to get me. The police had apprehended two guys and wanted me to ID them. They were the right age and build, they’d been running from the cops through nearby backyards and over fences and so on from what I could hear. I looked at them and looked at them and tried to tell myself that these had to be the guys. But I couldn’t do it, because I wasn’t sure. I told the cop that I couldn’t be sure, I couldn’t remember the faces or the clothes. He looked at me, plainly annoyed: they’d obviously had a time chasing these guys down. “You sure?” he said, “These guys were running from the back of the parking lot on the other station the moment we got over there.” I hesitated. I wanted the guys caught, and I didn’t want to put out the cop for nothing. But I couldn’t do it: I knew I couldn’t swear that I was right, and I wanted to be able to swear. So they let them go.
I’m surprised that the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. has had the legs that it’s had as a national news story. I actually think that the conversation about the case in a lot of places has been sophisticated and complex, talking not just about race but about social class and about policing and authority.
Broadly speaking, I come down where quite a few people have, which is to say that of course this was about race: the person who made the call probably wouldn’t have called for two white men doing the same, and probably would have known who a white man on the street was anyway. Or she would have asked someone else in the neighborhood: recently a neighbor who lives several blocks away stopped at our door to ask about something odd she’d seen two doors up, just to make sure that we thought it was ok. (It was ok, we recognized the car and the people she was seeing.) The cop probably would have accepted much more quickly that he was dealing with the actual homeowner and backed off. On the flip side, Gates’ anger at the cop’s presence would have been much more humdrum if he hadn’t felt like a black man who was being harassed in his own home.
But like many other observers, I think this is as much about policing and authority as it is about race. I’m not the only one to have seen a connection between the Gates arrest and the case of Philadelphia police officer Alberto Lopez Senior last week. Though the cases are very different in scope and scale, they underscore the extent to which police power in many instances is arbitrary and the extent to which police unions with tremendous political influence will successfully shield their own employees from oversight.
This remarkable thread at Crooked Timber built around the comments of NYPD police captain Brandon de Pozo on the case triangulates really well on the problem of police authority and police discretion. De Pozo’s argument is that the officer arresting Gates made a mistake, but an understandable one, that police need to have good judgement but that the public also needs to show respect for their authority. I’m ok with that thought only if I think that when a cop shows bad judgment about making an arrest, there will be consequences and there will be public clarity about there having been bad judgment. Maybe minor discipline with the officer in the Gates arrest, but in the case of Lopez in Philadelphia, that should have been the fastest firing on record. He not only attacked and arrested someone without provocation, but tried to tamper with evidence and obstruct justice. Instead, he’s back on the job.
The reason I think that even the Gates arrest is a serious case of bad judgment goes back to the story I opened my post with. See, for me, an arrest is a serious, serious thing. The power to make an arrest is the singular place where a free society lives and dies. When a cop gets someone to come out of their own home in order to arrest them for disorderly conduct, with the apparent motive to avenge insults and get even, that’s serious business, even if the cop and the justice system know it’s a nuisance charge that’s going to be dismissed. The New York Times survey of police on the question of disorderly conduct makes it pretty clear that a lot of cops feel pretty free to make an arrest whenever they feel annoyed by a member of the public.
I get it: police work is hard, and in many respects unrewarding. I get also that it’s important and that I rely on it. I respect the men and women who do it well. I don’t think it’s right to yell at police or be an asshole. But saying after the fact that Gates was an asshole is one kind of judgment about the civic conduct of another citizen of this country. Arresting someone, charging them with a crime, depriving them even briefly of their liberty, is another thing altogether.
I couldn’t say yes to identifying those guys that night because I didn’t know for sure that they were the ones, even with a lot of circumstantial evidence that they might be. I couldn’t say yes because to arrest and charge ought to be something that has an almost sacred weight. I couldn’t be a party to it unless I was prepared to swear to its justice and necessity.
That’s what worries me most around this incident and similar incidents: that some people approve of the use of police power as routine, as tactical, to make a point. De Pozo in the Crooked Timber thread suggests that police ought to enforce social norms. He’s clear that he means just through their presence and their persuasive words, but I think maybe other police aren’t so clear. The power to arrest mustn’t be used just to tell an asshole he’s being an asshole, or to dictate the proper attitude. The misuse of the power to arrest ought to be seen as an extraordinary violation, a matter of the utmost gravity.