Saturday, July 25, 2009

Copping To The Culture

There's been a lot of virtual ink spilled on the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. by the Cambridge Police Department, and especially the subsequent media cold war between Professor Gates, the Cambridge Police, and even President Obama. A lot of ink has been spilled on the subject of race in an allegedly post-racial America, but that's not what I want to discuss (especially given that I'm on record as believing that Obama's election did not actually signal the advent of post-racial America).

What I want to discuss is something I feel was just as significant in the Gates issue, but is an aspect of American policing that simply doesn't get discussed, and I think can be thrown into relief most clearly by contrasting Mr. Gates's experience with the experience of a 24-year old man in my home state, shot dead earlier this week by a sherrif's deputy despite only being clad in a swimsuit with no obvious weapons at hand. The victim and the deputy were both white, as far as I can tell from reports, so race played no role in his death.

What I think did play a role in Tyler Heilman's death was a part of police culture; a part that's seeping its way into the larger popular culture as a result of the general reaction by current storytellers, whether for fiction or non-fiction, to attempt to avoid the demonization of authority -- specifically that of the military and police -- during the 1960's.

I personally have not had bad experiences with police. I've had some cops as family friends. When studying theater in Yuma, AZ, I volunteered to help the local police academy with their domestic violence training by acting as a scene re-enactor. I've had plenty of exposure to the positive side of police culture.

One of those things that is absolutely true of police culture (and to an extent, military culture), is that those who are in the culture see themselves as 'the good guys', and those who stand in their way or challenge them, by default, become 'the bad guys'. It's a fairly simplistic way of looking at the world, but in the sense that it helps promote camaraderie among officers, I can't say that it's innately a bad thing.

The problem comes in when the 'cops are good guys, others are bad guys' mentality begins to be more generally applied. A few examples:

- About the only truly bad experience I've had with police was once when I was working as a behind-the-wheel driver training instructor. High school students are required to have six hours of behind-the-wheel training before they can apply for their driver license, so it wasn't at all uncommon for me to be called to a house to pick up a high school kid. One time, though, I went to a house in north Minneapolis where no one answered the door, and as I was walking to find a pay phone to call my office (this was years before cell phones became common for 'average folks' to own), I was approached by a pair of Minneapolis's finest, cuffed, put into the back of the squad car, asked to tell my story, and warned sternly to think about my story because they were sure I was going to have to change it.

As it turned out, the girl who lived in the house had recently broken up with her abusive boyfriend, and without even looking out the window, had assumed that I was the boyfriend when I'd knocked to pick up the girl for her driver lesson. Once the confusion was cleared up (with plenty of apologies from the girl and her mother), the cops seemed willing to move me over from 'likely bad guy' to 'misunderstood good guy' status, and we all parted fairly amicably (though I still asked my office if I could take the rest of the day off after the stress of the encounter).

- A fictional example, yet still interesting:

A recent episode of "The Closer", a police procedural starring Kyra Sedgewick as a chief of homicide detectives, featured a situation where two cops were murdered by neo-Nazi skinhead bikers. Also dead at the scene was an 18-year old boy who might or might not have been part of the assassination plot.

The episode introduced us to Captain Sharon Raydor, played by Mary McDonnell (the same actress who portrayed President Laura Roslin on the recently concluded Battlestar Galactica TV series). Raydor is the head of the FID, whose responsibility it is to investigate incidents where police are alleged to have exceeded or abused their authority.

Raydor's interest is solely with the dead 18-year old, yet the episode and everyone in it treat Raydor's investigation as though it would impair Chief Johnson's own investigation of the cop-killers. At every point where there is conflict between Raydor and Johnson, Johnson 'wins', including getting Assistant Chief Pope (played by the outstanding J.K. Simmons) to order Raydor to take a back seat to Johnson's investigation, despite Raydor's team providing the information that allows the police to track down the car used in the shooting.

It turns out, of course, that Johnson is right all along -- the kid was actually an accomplice to the killing. Not only is Raydor not present when Asst Chief Pope lauds Johnson and her team for not only bringing justice, but easing the pain of the fallen officers' families, the final scene between Raydor and Johnson has Raydor brining a verbal knife to a gunfight, as Johnson argues that Raydor's unit's very existence is bad for cops by making them hesitate to defend themselves when needed, while Raydor's only response is to point out that, even with her unit, the city paid out $70 million in fines and was required to release hundreds of alleged criminals because of police abuses.

(Interestingly enough, though, Raydor's argument may be better than I gave it credit for -- she mentions the 'Rampart case', which I assumed was a made-up event, but was in fact a near-legendary police corruption case which inspired the TV series "The Shield". Still, for the purposes of this scenario, none of the officers involved possessed even a whiff of corruption, making the specific argument moot for the purpose of defending herself against the charge that Raydor herself was somehow complicit in the officers' deaths. At least the writers portrayed her as being in uniform to attend the funeral of the slain officers.)

So much for examples.

It's pretty easy to see how a group of officers, summoned to the scene of an alleged break-in, might find themselves unconsciously falling back on their shared 'what are you doing, we're the good guys' social construction of reality when confronted by a mouthy black man who claims he's simply standing in his own house.

It's a bit harder to understand how this might have contributed to the death of Tyler Heilman, though. Still, I'll point out the following:

- Kasota is not a very large community (population 680 according to the 2000 census)

- Heilman was well-known as a delinquent, with many juvenile and young-adult arrests for vandalism, assault, and underage drinking, making him likely to be well-known by the local community, especially the police

So Deputy Waldron knows Heilman is a 'bad guy'. Then, when Heilman's response to a traffic stop by an unmarked police car is to get out and grapple with Waldron, the situation escalates.

The part we'll probably never know is why Waldron, after Heilman noticed his badge and stopped fighting, came up shooting. It's hard to imagine that as a fully conscious decision, though, so unconscious influences such as culture might well have influenced his actions.

I don't think this culture is going away any time soon. It's been part of police culture for, well, probably as long as there have been police. And popular culture is adopting it, too, as I noted above: police procedurals are among the most popular of shows right now, from CSI to The Closer and all along the spectrum of the various flavors of Law & Order. The crazy thing? Those folks who take the time to look at the 'we're the good guys' culture know it's bullshit, from the sociologists who study how things like the Rampart case came to be, to folks like David Simon, who produced The Wire, probably my favorite cop show of all time. Here's how Simon himself put it in an interview for Slate magazine:

If I had to write a police procedural right now, I'd put a gun to my head. And I really have to say this, even Homicide was prisoner of the form. On shows where the arrest matters, where it's about good and evil, punishing crime, the poor and the rich, the suspect exists to exalt the good guys, to make the Sipowiczs and the Pembletons and the Joe Fridays that much more moral, that much more righteous, that much more intellectualized. It's to validate their point of view and the point of view of society. So you end up with the same stilted picture of the underclass. Either they're the salt of the earth looking for a break, and not at all responsible, or they're venal and evil and need to be punished. That's a good precedent for creating an alienated America

If Simon is right here, and I think he makes a good argument, then this tendency of cops and those who support them to see themselves as the 'good guys', and anybody who opposes or obstructs them as the 'bad guys', then this very attitude is part of the numerous stresses turning America into a divided, partisan, torn, and ultimately broken nation.

Is anybody going to cop to that, though?

ADDENDUM: Ask and ye shall receive, I suppose. "Jack Dunphy" is an LAPD officer who, in this National Review Online article, basically puts it as bluntly as I've seen it put: if the police have a reason to suspect you of wrongdoing, you're a 'bad guy' until you can demonstrate otherwise.

Oh, and remember that Rampart case we discussed above? Yeah, that was the LAPD involved in that. Surprised?

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