I had a recent experience, the details of which I won’t discuss here, that forced me to dwell upon a few issues in regard to police behavior. One is whether or not an individual has any right to expect a change of police behavior that may be deemed “inappropriate.” I’ve described many experiences I have had with police in which if any criminal behavior was in the offing, it was solely in the imagination of the officer. Some officers just feel they need to strike an “intimidating” pose on a person of a demographic that is assumed to have “criminal tendencies” just to frighten them enough to dissuade them from such ideas. Of course, if you are a law-abiding citizen, it might be “surprising” to discover that some people might find this behavior offensive and perhaps even based on a “discriminatory” and stereotypical belief system or “profile”—whether by hair color, clothing or (the horror) color of skin; a traffic court judge opined this very thing after I gave him my description of an encounter with Highway Patrol deputy concerning a ticket I was disputing.
The question then is whether we should still view this as “acceptable” behavior simply because we give certain license to police. This goes to the very heart of the recent Justice Department investigation of the Seattle Police Department and its record of race-based policing and use-of-force policies. Police want us to accept this behavior, to look at things from their “perspective”; of course, it is not easy for the lay person to understand the “perspective” of Ian Birk, the officer who shot John T. Williams, a Native American woodcarver whose “crime” was mining his business. If there is too much “accountability,” then police officers will feel “constrained” and may not “properly” conduct their duties. So we must accept police behavior that may be deemed discriminatory or abusive, because they are “just doing their job.” We are to accept the premise that they are they capable of self-policing; unfortunately, in regard to the Justice Department findings, this has done little or nothing to stop the “bad apples” from going completely rotten—and thus condemning the whole basket. You would think that police departments would understand this, rather than circling the wagons.
The second issue, more “tricky” than the first is whether race or “ethnic”-based policing is a “police” problem (from “training”), a societal problem, or simply an “individual” problem. While there is certainly an “expectation” from certain segments of the population that police should “crack down” harder—or at least pay more attention to—other segments of the population, there is a real question of whether an individual officer are also a reflection of his or her particular “segment”—say, race. Are some white police officers more “aggressive” in their behavior toward minorities—perhaps reflective of prior social and racial attitudes? Are we then to believe that black police officers, perhaps because they come from a historically oppressed group in this country, are more keenly aware of discrimination and conduct their police business with that in mind—especially when “handling” minorities? One would think, of course, that they would “interpret” as “normal” behavior something that a white police officer would consider “suspicious.” On the other hand, they might believe that they “know” a minority individual’s “delinquent tendencies” better, and the “culture” that inspires it, and to achieve a level of “respect” they must present a more bullying or intimidating posture that might in fact pose a conflict with the actual character and background of a “suspect.”
If a police officer of any race or “ethnicity” conducts his or her duties in differing degrees of “diligence”—take, for example, drug use enforcement—in respect to race or “ethnicity” of different from themselves, does this constitute a discriminatory attitude? I was actually confronted with this question in a manner intended to make me feel that it was “inappropriate” or “invalid,” that I should take into account the background of the individual. But this officer was mistaken in his assumed knowledge my “background.” And this has been true in the “civilian” world as well, of course. I grew-up in and attended mostly white neighborhoods and schools, and was immersed in the “culture.” But for all the talk by racists like Pat Buchanan who claim “we” don’t want to “assimilate,” does it really matter what “we” do? Is skin color the only real “culture?” I recall an incident in college when I was listening to some of my favorite Sixties and Seventies hits I recorded on a cassette tape (yeah, I know). A white person who allegedly "knew" me sneered and said “That isn’t your music.” What was he trying to say here? That I am a different species of human?
And how often have we heard that the police say that they see themselves as an “us” versus “them” proposition? Perhaps it is best that we should regard police—regardless of race or ethnicity of a particular individual—as only one “color”—that of their uniforms. Whatever their individual differences may be, they all read out of the same instruction manual. A discussion of whether or not the actions of at least some officers come from an individual impulse is a pointless exercise if they use the same criteria to judge people they may or may not have a clue about. Thus people might find the “system” as discriminatory, regardless of who is carrying out the “instruction.”