“If anyone has been offended, I’m sorry for that.”
—LA Chief of Police Darryl F. Gates
(in response to being criticized for suggesting that more blacks than whites die from police chokeholds is because their carotid arteries “do not open as fast as normal people.” LA Times, May 11, 1982.)
The Henry Louis Gates dust-up with the Cambridge police department reminded me that everyone has an anecdote or two involving the police—either how the cops rousted, annoyed, or otherwise disrespected them, or, conversely, how they helped or forgave them.
My own experiences are mixed. While I object to the way cops routinely treat the homeless and underclass—and, as a former union rep, can’t forget the treasonous role law enforcement played in organized labor’s struggle, serving as management goon squads and strike-breakers—I also realize the police reflect the values of society at large.
And to the extent that we’re a race of shameless snobs and celebrity hounds, we can expect cops to bully the weakest and least prepossessing among us, and gush over the richest and most glamorous. Cops are no different than the rest of us. Except they carry a badge and a gun and have the authority to detain, imprison, or kill us, which, unfortunately, makes all the difference in the world.
I’ve known my share of police. There was a saloon near the union hall which cops regularly patronized, and I had a friend who was an officer with the LA County Sheriff’s Department, who delighted in educating naïve little me on “real life” police practices. While none of his stories could be described as “shocking,” it was a bit unsettling to hear them presented as standard procedure.
For instance, he said that cops make a practice of “tuning up” anyone who tries to run away from them. “When we tell you to stop,” he said, “you’d better stop. If you make us chase you, you’re going to pay for it.” When I reminded him that it was illegal for cops to beat up their prisoners, he just rolled his eyes.
He also told me that when they spot a car on the road at 2:30 a.m. with black men in it, they will automatically pull it over, using some phony reason, such as an improper lane change or faulty tail light, as an excuse.
Why would you stop a car with black guys in it when there’s no violation? “Because there are black guys in it,” he deadpanned. He was neither apologetic nor embarrassed at admitting to racial profiling because he honestly believed stopping a car full of black men at 2:30 a.m. is what any conscientious police officer would do.
Surprisingly, when you talk to police about their union you find that most of them (unlike industrial union members) have a fairly high opinion of it. Part of that is because cops don’t trust anyone except other cops, and they realize that, imperfect and “political” as their union may be, it’s nonetheless composed of nothing but cops, former cops, and cop lawyers.
That “us vs. them” dynamic is a breeding ground for fanaticism and self-deception. Even though, statistically, 98 per cent of the population are law-abiding citizens, cops tend to approach most of us as if we belong to that 2 per cent.
There are exceptions. During a strike some years ago, several union members were involved in minor brushes with the police—most having to do with disturbances on the picket lines during the midnight shift. Based on reports I received from witnesses, the police were astonishingly reserved in their responses.
For example, when alcohol was involved, the cops did little more than caution the drinkers not to make total asses of themselves; and when there was a skirmish or physical confrontation, they managed to settle it without arresting anyone. People went out of their way to praise the officers’ coolness.
Granted, these union incidents occurred in conservative Orange County. The cops were white and none of the picketers was African-American. Had the drinkers and fighters on the picket line been young black men, things might have played out differently.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Americana,” “Larva Boy”) and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at Dmacaray@earthlink.net