When I first moved to DC in 1965, I could not have predicted that my interaction with the city’s police force would be played out along Pennsylvania Avenue, in front of the White House, along Constitution Avenue or on the Mall in the shadow of the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.  I arrived in DC at the dawn of the “age of demonstrations” and I was a full fledged, card carrying member of that era and frequently received less than gentle treatment from the cops charged with keeping order and peace and protecting property.   No permanent, bodily damage, however, but a couple of temporary bruises.

But on a daily basis, my non-confrontational interactions with members of the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Force were quite different.  Before coming to DC I had no interactions with our men (and woman today) in blue.  Being a stranger to DC, I had several interactions with them, mainly asking directions or enquiring about what some parking sign meant.  (They can still be downright confusing! The signs.) I can’t recall a single instance when my questions and inquiries weren’t met with courtesy and respect.  In fact I clearly recall one officer – into who’s arms I’d walked while crossing Que Street against the light – who, after giving me a lecture about obeying the city’s laws and giving me a “warning ticket”  – smiled and told me that the next time he was not going to let me off so easily.  Not a bad exchange for me, a lawbreaker, and he, a cop. 

Fast forward to 1971, Philadelphia and the reign of Policy Commissioner Frank L. Rizzo.  I think I’d been in Philly for a couple of weeks when I walked up to one of Philly’s finest and asked him in which direction was the Art Museum – we were standing somewhere around 17th and Market Streets a block or so from City Hall.   He reacted as if I had just reached for his gun so patently aggressive and arrogant was his response to my question.  I recoiled.  I became immediately tense and felt as if there was an invisible electrically charged shield between us, the slightest touch of which would bring about certain electrocution should I mistakenly get too close to the officer and his gun.   

That was my first interaction with a Philadelphia cop and during my stay in the City of Brotherly Love my subsequent interactions were minimal.  I was to learn that no one in Philly, at least no one I knew, viewed Philly’s cops as out to “protect and serve” but rather to “harass and club.”  And this sentiment wasn’t limited to Blacks. The city’s whites I knew were equally hostile to the city’s police force.  

Today I have to say that members of DC’s police force are only slightly less “friendly” then they were during my early years here, and that may be due to my ramped up cynicism of things authoritarian rather than a change in their attitudes.  But they are still friendly if a bit slower to engage in conversation whether standing in line at the 7-11 or on foot patrol around Dupont Circle or ringing the White House.  And given the situations they deal with so often in the Nation’s Capitol (demonstrations, terrorist attacks, and Tea Party rallies) they still respond patiently and politely to all the tourists’ dumb questions about “Are the shops any good on The Mall?”  (BTW I have been asked this question several times.)

Then there was the NC State Trooper who stopped me and a couple of my Black friends because…….????   Because we were race mixing, something back then – it was 1971 – that was not at the top of most North Carolinians’ “To Do” or “Just Ignore” lists.   That encounter was scary as hell – we were on route 301 in some rural landscape with not a house I sight - even though the State Trooper was polite.  

But it seems that we are engaged in another one of those “national dialogs” about police brutality and race.  One of those two-sided, masturbatory exercises that may feel good, but impregnates nothing.  One side bemoans DeBlasio and anyone else who dares to even suggest that police might engage in excessive force or other such brutal behaviors while the other side believes that such actions do occur and need to be addressed.  As in most of our other important “dialogs” the right-wingers have postulated this as an “either or” situation, i.e. you are either for the cops or against the cops.  It seems that cops too, this time around, have adopted the same position in New York and other venues.   Reminds me of the Iraq war – “you are either with us or against us” and anyone who voiced any doubts about that course of action (Bill Maher, The Dixie Chicks and ME) were deemed traitors.  

Congrats once again to the right wing for both obfuscating an important issue and forcing the country into this untenable situation that need not be so.  While it would be a bit of a stretch to call those of us who think that the issue of police brutality and excessive force traitors, rest assured that us liberals who believe that we have a problem in this arena will and are being called un-American, disloyal to our police and the liberal destructors of American society.   

Now I’m not sure what you call – in policing terms – the shooting dead of a 12 year old in a Cleveland park brandishing a toy gun within 2 seconds of arriving on the scene.   I would call it at the very least disconcerting, to be kind.   There was simply no alternative to the shooting dead this child?   Did the police arriving on the scene in their squad car have insufficient time to judge the situation?  (Sure, two seconds is NOT a lot of time.) Was the kid surrounded by a crowd people so that he presented an imminent danger to others?  To the police sitting in their squad cars?  Or was it a just a “shoot first and ask questions later” response by the responding officers?  

I’m not a police officer.  But from a couple of police friends, I know how difficult and dangerous police work is.  And yes, I know that police officers killed in the line of duty this past year numbered 27.  There were around 760,000 sworn police officers in 2008 according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the latest year that data is available from them.  Current estimates are around 900,000.  That’s a lot of people who are legally empowered to take the lives of other human beings for whatever reasons.  It behooves us to ensure that these folks understand that they hold all the cards in confrontations with us citizens and act accordingly.

The “Hands-Up/Don’t Shoot” demonstrators around the country numbered in the hundreds of thousands.  The two officers assassinated in New York, according to conservatives, are somehow deemed to negate this outpouring of overwhelming sentiment over the police killings of Tamir rice in Cleveland, Eric Garner in New York, Trayvon Martin, in Florida, and who knows how many other such incidents around the country.  (Locally, in the DC area I am aware of four such cases in various stages of investigation going on right now.  Just two weeks ago a DC resident was awarded a monetary settlement in a case involving false arrest.)  

The tragic killing of two of New York’s police officers, in no way changes the underlying issue of police forces around the country seeming to operate under their own laws (shoot first, ask questions later) rather than the laws the rest of us live under and abide by.  No amount of distraction, no amount of turning of backs on politicians, no amount of conservative rage over liberal street demonstrators who chant “kill a cop” is going to change this metric.  

I find it immensely amusing that when confronted with the imaginary threat of Blue Helmeted United Nation’s troops invading America conservatives get all lathered up and enraged and are all in favor of armed insurrection in the face of this form of unbridled authority.  Yet when there is a real issue of police “unbridled authority” – one that is not a piece of fiction but one that is real – they embarrassingly trample all over themselves to embrace such authoritarian excesses.   The Paris terrorist attacks have pushed the police brutality issue out of the news temporarily but we will revisit this issue.  Do we think that there will be no more questionable police actions in the future?  Not likely.    There will certainly be another Trayvon or Eric Garner or Tamir Rice incident.  It’s only a mater of time.  



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